Tuesday, 31 December 2013

NerdTech's Film of the Year 2013!

It's been one year, give or take, since this site randomly turned into a movie blog for no reason. The first stuff on here was the 2012 Film of the Year awards so, naturally, we're marking our first anniversary with the 2013 awards!

The rules are the same as last year: this is not the best films of the year, it's the films that had the biggest effect on me - be that emotional, exciting, hilarious or terrifying. The best film I saw this year, objectively speaking, actually is on this list - but, because it's an intentionally subjective list, it barely made it into the top 3.
Gut reactions are the order of the day.

5: Iron Man 3 - Shane Black

It's been a pretty crappy year for blockbusters. Star Trek was fun but, in retrospect, indefensibly stupid; Man of Steel was a boring, self-serious mess; and GI Joe was just plain terrible. Even Pacific Rim, much as I loved it, peaked too soon and sagged at the end. Thank Odin, then, for Marvel.

Of their two offerings this year (three if you count Agents of SHIELD) Iron Man 3 was the clear winner. Shane Black made a superhero movie that breaks all the rules and never does what it's supposed to; at once both a part of the Marvel universe and its own crazy thing.
Iron Man, the guy in the suit, is barely in it - his biggest villain, likewise - and somehow that's actually to the movie's benefit. Black's film goes out of its way to be different, and the result is a fresh and unusual take on an overplayed genre. Even if it did upset a few people.

Many franchises this year split their fanbase down the middle, and Iron Man was no exception. Man of Steel and Star Trek both delighted and disgusted fans in equal measure. But where they caused divisions with their plotholes and problems, Iron Man 3 did it on purpose, with a pitch-perfect reveal that flipped everything on its head.
It's that mischievous nature - true to the comics yet completely subverting them - that earns it a place on this list. The fact that it also has a great script, brilliant action, and is often really funny is just the polish on this shiny metal suit.

Read the full review here!

4: Monsters University - Dan Scanlon

I can't say I was thrilled when I heard that they were making a prequel to one of my favourite films. Prequels tend to be a Bad Idea - I can't think of the last one that actually lived up to the original (X-Men: First Class maybe, but that's actually more of a reboot).
And, if we're being honest, MU can't match the pure magic of Monsters Inc. either. But it's different enough and funny enough and, as it hits its final act, clever enough that it never actually matters.

At first glance it's a pretty generic collage movie story, but the specifics of the film and its world make it far more unique and, more importantly, flat-out hilarious. Every moment of the film boasts a joke of some kind - be they tiny visual puns in the background or huge set-piece gags - and every single one lands.
It's Pixar's funniest film but, in true Pixar fashion, they don't let that get in the way of the great characters and their surprisingly heartfelt story. If nothing else, it's great that it keeps surprising us, even though we already know how it ends.

It's quite possible that Monsters University would have made this list merely for being the funniest film of the year but then, in a final act as dramatic as it is unexpected, it cements itself as one of the year's absolute best.

Read the full review here!

3: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Peter Jackson

For a number of reasons - including Christmas, and something you'll see in a moment - I still haven't finished my review of The Hobbit. Because I don't want to spoil that review, which will be up first thing next year, I'll keep this brief.
Just know that, even though I've given it the same ranking, Desolation is the film we all hoped An Unexpected Journey would be - a lighter, less serious tale than Lord of the Rings, but still recognisably set in the same world. Middle Earth is alive again, and everything from the characters to the locations has the depth and texture that the first Hobbit seemed to lack.

But none of that is why it's on this list. It's on this list for Smaug, and that's all you need to know.

Full review soon!

2: Gravity / Rush - Alphonso Cuarón / Ron Howard

This second position was originally going to go to Gravity alone; but then I crashed my car. Suddenly I'm jumping out of my skin every time I see break-lights, and Rush is very much at the forefront of my mind.
Since then I've been trying to rank them properly - to figure out which is better - but it's an impossible choice. Rush is probably the better film, but Gravity is the more powerful experience, and they both work so perfectly. In the end I've decided to cheat: my number 2 goes to immersive, beautiful, terrifying white-knuckle movies. Both of them.

They're very different films, of course. One is a true story that spans years, with a bunch of characters and a lot of talking; the other is a very fictional day-long story, with barely four characters and minimal dialogue. Also one of them happens in space.
But, as I'm lumping them together, they're actually more similar than they might appear. Both films are about their characters' single-minded determination to reach a goal - being World Champion and not dying respectively - and the horrific events that get in their way. By dragging us intimately through their stories, and by getting incredible work from the actors, they both make us care and feel for characters we normally wouldn't, either because we know nothing about them or because they're kind of awful.
The biggest similarity, though, is that they're both just flawlessly executed. Even though Howard uses a thousand shots where Cuarón might use three, every single one of those shots is necessary, meaningful and stunning to look at; and every one propels the film at a breakneck pace. Neither director wastes even a moment.

Despite their huge differences in story and style, these two share a spot because they're both transportive, breathless, powerful movies. And they both scared the shit out of me.

Read the full Gravity review here!
Read the full Rush review here!

1: Wreck-It Ralph - Rich Moore

All my favourite animated films seem to centre on unlikely friendships. Sully and Boo, Lilo and Stitch, Wall-E and Eve, Hogarth and the Giant, Hiccup and Toothless, even Wallace and Gromit. It was probably inevitable that Ralph and Vanellope would jump straight onto that list, too.
What wasn't inevitable is that they would do it with such style.

I don't just mean that it looks gorgeous - though it certainly does, with brilliant design work and ingenious game-like animation - but also the flair with which it pulls off its story. We're rapidly plunged into not one, but a whole handful of worlds, each with their own rules and textures. Characters feel fully-rounded from the first moment they appear. The main villain is somehow set up without us even knowing that there's meant to be one.
It's all just so clever and assured!

Cleverest and most assured of all, though, is how emotional things get. It's very funny the entire time - the whole cast is made up of comedians - and yet it choked me up again and again. That central pairing, for whatever reason, grabbed my heart as only animated odd-couples seem to do.
Often that emotion would come at the expense of scale but here, even at its most quiet and private, this film is never afraid to go big. When it all reaches its tremendous, apocalyptic climax everything, from those intimate emotions to the wonderful designs to tiny ideas we didn't know were important, collide to create an ending both huge and wonderfully personal.
The defining moment of the cinematic year, for me, was when a big dumb guy holding a cookie chanted a totally meaningless mantra, and somehow made it mean so much.

Wreck-It Ralph was the first new film I saw in 2013 - and nothing topped it. Honestly, nothing even came close.

Read the full review here!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Frozen Review

Walt Disney Animation Studios, reborn from the ashes of the early two-thousands, still haven't figured out how to make the songs work. Tangled came the closest, but neither The Princess and the Frog or now Frozen quite capture the magic of the old classics.
I'm not sure what it is, exactly, but the songs don't gel with the rest of the action the way they did in, say, Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. It might be as simple as the type of music; where Tangled has a fairly traditional feel, Princess had its jazz thing and Frozen is more of a modern pop musical - it's no coincidence that one of the leads is Idina Menzel from Wicked. It might also be a pacing issue; Frozen crams all its songs into the first half, leaving the second half feeling kind of empty, and the last song we hear is a jokey comedy number which just doesn't seem right somehow.

It's clear, though, that Disney is truly passionate about keeping the animated musical alive, long after it was declared dead, and that is a wonderful thing. Maybe they haven't nailed it yet - there's bound to be a few hiccups in this early stage - but they've come damn close, and the fact they're trying at all is a triumph in itself.
Besides, while the songs may not blend seamlessly with the rest of the film, they're still great songs. There's a couple I'll be humming well into next year.

Their real strength, though, is how earnest and heartfelt they are. Every number, bar the aforementioned comedy one, crackles with emotion and really lets us into the hearts of the characters. What we find there isn't always obvious, either. A cute song about building snowmen suddenly becomes incredibly poignant, an even cuter song about snowmen is surprisingly bittersweet, and a duet combines the excitement of one character with the dread of another. The single best sequence in the entire film is when we're expecting one kind of song but get the complete opposite - it's just so unexpected and powerful!

That's sort of Frozen's entire philosophy; to be moving in unexpected ways. We have the traditional Disney setup of a princess with no parents, a handsome prince, a magical curse. But the unexpected part is that there's two princesses, sisters Elsa and Anna, and every part of the story - both the warmth and the conflict - comes from their relationship. Except for one snivelling ambassador, there's not even a villain, and it's amazing how well that works.

When they were younger the sisters were extremely close, as you'd expect, but one day Elsa, the oldest and heir to the throne, suddenly shut herself away and they've barely spoken since. The reason, unbeknownst to Anna, is that her sister can magically manipulate ice and snow. When, as children, those powers almost got Anna killed, Elsa became a recluse to keep her sister safe and try to repress the magic. All Anna knows is that her best friend suddenly shut her out and she misses her deeply.
When Elsa's secret is eventually revealed, in the most explosive and public way possible, she flees to the top of a mountain, accidentally trapping the country in an unending winter. This leaves Anna as the only one who can follow her up there and make things right - and that double meaning of "make things right" is basically the whole point. It's a quest to save the country, sure, but it's equally about saving their broken relationship.

While this sounds pretty heavy - and it is, particularly for Elsa - the film stays light and fun, with Anna almost hyperactive from being cooped up in a castle her whole life with no-one to talk to or play with. The side-characters help with this too, as Anna collects a small posse on her way up the mountain - Kristoff the hunky ice-farmer, Sven the reindeer, and Olaf the comedy snowman (he likes warm hugs) are all very funny and bounce off each other nicely.
While every character is important and has something to do within the story, including a handful of townspeople and the dashing Prince Hans, all of it's ultimately incidental to the central tale of two sisters. We never lose sight of the film's heart.

As a result it's a very touching film but, like Brave last year, the intimate focus leaves everything feeling quite small. There's only a few locations, and travelling between them seems to take very little time (Elsa's mountain must be quite a short one). But, like Brave again, the lack of scale allows for a very fine level of polish, and the emotions are anything but small. Though the finale in particular is technically tiny, it feels big - it's such an emotional moment for the sisters, and it staunchly refuses to take the obvious or traditional way out. It works brilliantly.

In the end, Frozen fully embraces everything that makes Disney musicals great, centring itself around a heartwarming family story, and balancing fun with genuine feeling. But, importantly, it always finds ways to mix those things up - from the number of princesses to the direction of the songs - becoming something unusual and special. This slightly subversive streak runs through everything, right down to the message of the film, which basically boils down to "most Disney movies have a stupid message." Add to that the only Disney song that will ever contain the word "fractal" and it's worth the ticket price already.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Birthday of the Doctor

It's weird, but my relationship with Steven Moffat's run on Doctor Who seems to be closely mirroring my real-life relationship. There was the initial giddy joy, where everything was exciting and new; there was the part where we grew closer, but things got tangled up and complicated; then there was the rocky part where we didn't see much of each other, and when we did we just got into fights. In both cases we were on the verge of violently splitting up - and yet, in both cases, we rekindled our passion in the flickering darkness of a cinema.

Too much information? Maybe. Worth it? Definitely.

So, after a dragged-out two-year series that I borderline loathed, Doctor Who has won me back with its excellent 50th Anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. It probably helped that my birthday is only two days after the good Doctor's, and that, as a special birthday surprise, I got to see it in 3D on a cinema screen - we even had a Doctor Who cake!
Since I wrote three massive posts about why the last series sucked, I think it's only fair I write one about why the special didn't.

The 3D is actually a good place to start because, knowing they were going to film this in 3D, they seem to have written the plot and shot the episode specifically around that feature. This ends up being both a blessing and a curse.
It's a blessing because they created those cool 3D Timelord paintings to justify using the format and, as well as being a clever and interesting device and just plain looking really cool, travelling through them allowed for some crazy stuff with the camera. The whole thing was shot more cinematically than usual and looked great, but those painting sequences really stood out.
Unfortunately, while the story-centric painting stuff used deep and immersive 3D, the episode sometimes fell into using gimmicky comin'-atcha 3D as well. The many quick shots of Zygons lurching at the screen, and closeups of shattering glass, got annoying very quickly, and the intro of the TARDIS randomly swinging over London was just gratuitous. They actually seem to do that in every other Doctor Who special, for some reason, but this time felt rushed and cluttered and it was obviously only there to flaunt the 3D.

There were other problems too - this episode is far from perfect - but most of them are incredibly minor. The biggest problem for me, though, was that utterly baffling scene with Tom Baker.
Everyone else seems to have loved this (and I swear I saw an article somewhere calling this the "best handled cameo ever") - to which I can only say, what cameo were you watching? It begins really strong, staying gently ambiguous while informing the plot... but then it just turns into nonsense, making it far too overt who Baker is while also somehow making it more confusing and then they congratulate each other about it and then it tries to be sad and weighty even though he's delivering happy news and it makes no sense! There was a way to make Baker's cameo work, but this definitely wasn't it.

Conversely, a problem that a lot of other people had - that we never get to see the outcome of the Zygon situation - I had the opposite reaction to. I loved how open-ended that was, letting us know that they definitely worked something out, but not telling us what. I can see how it seems a little incomplete, but any more time with them would have spoiled that clever, and surprisingly deep, bit with the inhaler.

And that deep, clever writing is the hallmark of this episode. The script is sharp, with the characters bouncing off each other brilliantly, and the story is a strong one. But what really set The Day of the Doctor apart is this one line:

"What is it that makes you so ashamed of being a grownup?"

That single sentence from John Hurt, and the look that the other two then give him, completely floored me. It instantly changes so much, adding new context to everything we've seen since the 2005 relaunch and giving meaning to things that were never intended to matter.
The Doctor is a thousand-year-old man in a body that keeps getting younger and younger, acting sillier and sillier. Until now that was just a matter of casting and writing, but now it's a plot-point. Not just a throwaway plot-point to explain something, either, but a meaningful decade-long arc that ends with this special, allowing the Doctor to move on and explaining why his next incarnation is the much older Peter Capaldi. It's fantastically clever and, more importantly, the pain in Tennant and Smith's silent reaction gives it great emotional power, too.

That whole dungeon scene, with Matt Smith's perfect delivery of the word "spoilers", was better written and better acted than the whole of the last two years put together. From that moment on I was back in love with Doctor Who.

The special as a whole actually works the same way, reframing things we thought we knew or just accepted as read. Until now we thought Gallifrey was destroyed but, without actually changing anything that happened, The Day of the Doctor gives new meaning to everything we've ever seen. We can go back and watch the Eccleston series again and, although nothing has changed, it all means something different. Again, where the Time War was previously just an event that happened, there's now an arc, with the Doctor coming to terms with what he's done and eventually owning it and facing it. Twice.

Of course, while this episode heavily influences the whole of the timeline, it's heavily influenced by the timeline in turn. It does what all anniversary episodes should: referencing and commenting on the past, while remaining a self-contained story.
Beyond using an obscure legacy monster, and returning to UNIT, the War Doctor's exasperation at his successors (and, later, Tennant's "I don't want to go") felt like a critique of the show itself, and the changes it's undergone in fifty years. It celebrates but also criticises, and then it goes one further. Where all programmes can reference the past, Doctor Who can actually visit it, filling in gaps and following up eight-years of loose ends. The Time War is the obvious one, but Captain Jack's transporter and the Doctor's marriage to Elizabeth are just as vital and just as welcome. Even the ending's cruel Eccleston cocktease, infuriating though it was, works perfectly in this respect. It's pulling the whole timeline together, giving things new meaning and purpose.

The ultimate example of this is obviously that massive, crowd-pleasing finale - a half-century of television brought together all at once - and it might be the cleverest part of a very clever episode.
It's not that it's particularly ingenious as an idea, but the way it's built up so subtly, without us even noticing, is astounding. Moments we think are throwaway gags or just neat ideas - like the four-hundred-year sonic-screwdriver calculation, or the 3D pictures which could so easily have only been a gimmick - unexpectedly come back in that huge, monumental payoff. Bringing in all thirteen Doctors at the last minute could have felt eye-rollingly silly, but because it's set up earlier, using nothing more than a door and a screwdriver, it becomes an overwhelmingly powerful moment and, in our cinema at least, it made the crowd explode.

This special is full of the stuff Moffat does so well, and it's the same stuff that was missing all series. Wibbly-wobbly stories across multiple timelines that weave tightly together in surprising ways. Like the series it seems to be a jumble of disconnected ideas - Zygons, paintings, queens, sentient superweapons, complex maths and more - but, unlike the floundering series, it all turns out to be important and relevant, and it all slots together to form something great.
It's so cleverly done, in fact, that it's basically showing off. I think the Doctor would approve.

Going forward, the biggest takeaway from The Day of the Doctor is that it gives Who a specific purpose. Over the last two years we've seen what happens when Moffat's Doctor is left drifting aimlessly, and it wasn't pretty. With its clear new goal of finding Gallifrey, the show has found a strong foundation of story to build upon. That, as this episode once again proved, is when Moffat excels as a showrunner, and that fills me with hope.
The other major issue this series was, of course, Clara. She isn't actually in The Day of the Doctor a great deal, but already we're seeing her vague character become a little more settled and defined. She's a teacher now, which is nice, but much nicer is that she seems to be developing actual traits; she's pragmatic and sensible and, while she may well have been those things before, they never really stood out against whatever other random traits she had this week.
She's not there yet, but Clara is beginning to look like a character. If Series 8 can continue to sketch out her edges, and if it ties that process to a more focused story, then maybe our relationship can blossom again. In fact, if it continues to follow real life, I may very well end up proposing.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bending the Rules

Legend of Korra's second series ended this week with a pretty great double episode, but it brings up something that we really need to talk about. As such, expect massive spoilers from this point on.

It's been obvious for a while now what this series was leading up to. They revealed that the Avatar was created by the melding of a human and the Spirit of Light, they introduced an equal and opposite Spirit of Darkness, and they had a human working with and trying to free that spirit. There was only one logical place this setup was going: a Dark Avatar.

When, sure enough, Korra's pantomime-villain of an uncle merged with the evil spirit Vaatu, his eyes burning with the familiar (yet evil) power of the Avatar State, it looked like this finale was going to be epic.
And it was epic, insofar as it became a giant-monster fight for some reason. That harbour battle (weird bit with Jinora not withstanding) was probably the perfect ending for the series, with Korra finally connecting with her spiritual side and learning to cope without the Avatar State. But the preceding fight, where the two opposing Avatars clashed as equals, felt lacking somehow. Something was off, but I couldn't quite figure out... wait, why is Unalaq only bending water?
Oh. Oh no.

The problem - and it took me far too long to realise this - is that the word "Avatar" no longer means what we think it means.

For three years, Last Airbender opened with Katara's voiceover saying, "Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them." When you say "Avatar", that's the definition that comes to mind. That's what the show and the world it created were about. Naturally, it's the same definition that comes to mind when you say "Dark Avatar", too. But, as this finale made painfully clear, that's not what it means any more.

We've been told from the beginning that the Avatar was also an important spiritual figure - the Bridge between Worlds. This series of Korra, Book Two: Spirits, aimed to explore and focus on that side of the character, which is admirable because its not something we've really seen before. This all came to a head in Beginnings, a big two-part episode set ten-thousand-years in the past, which showed us the origins of the first ever Avatar.
I explained last month how I found Beginnings both wonderful and deeply problematic - but this finale, and the way it treats the Dark Avatar, shows that the problem is much worse than I thought:

Beginnings, and this whole second series of Korra, actually separates the spiritual and physical aspects of the Avatar into two different things. The Avatar is no longer a spiritual being who can bend all four elements - the Avatar is now a spiritual being, and also someone who can bend all four elements for totally unrelated reasons.

The worst part is that "Avatar", as a word, now only seems to refer to the spiritual, glowy-eyed part of that equation. The physical part - the bending all the elements part - does not fall under that umbrella.
Wan, the first Avatar, could bend all of the elements before he became the Avatar. Every Avatar since has inherited this skill from him as a side-effect, but it actually has nothing to do with being the Avatar. In theory, there's no reason the Avatar should necessarily be a bender at all.

In practice what it means for the story is that when Unalaq, a waterbender, becomes the Dark Avatar it has no effect on his bending. It doesn't grant him the power over all four elements, as any sensible person might have expected it to, because that's not actually what "Avatar" means any more. Unalaq is still just a waterbender, albeit a very strong one with glowing eyes.
After a whole series of building up to this ultimate villain, Korra's equal and opposite - the yin to her yang - is nothing of the sort. He's just another super-bender, like the Firelord or the bloodbenders from last series. He may be an Avatar in name, but he certainly doesn't feel like one.

If this new definition of "Avatar" had already been established - if Beginnings had occurred in a previous series - then fine. They'd be stuck with it and they'd have to work around it, with their Dark Avatar limited to just one element. But it wasn't! This series was all planned together as a whole - meaning they chose the Dark Avatar as the villain, and chose to substantially weaken that villain by redefining "Avatar" at the same time. That means it must have been a conscious decision to make things work this way - and it's a decision I do not understand at all! It utterly cripples this finale, and it undermines the rest of the show.
Unalaq is supposed to be a dark mirror of Korra herself, showing us how easily her powers could be used for evil, and how devastating that would be - but that powerful theme is lost because he doesn't actually have her powers. Plus, far more importantly, their fight would have been so much more awesome if Unalaq had been using all four elements. As it was, the battle was far too short and offered nothing we hadn't seen before. It was disappointing, basically, when there was absolutely no reason for it to be.
I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy the fight. It was fun, it was dramatic, it was exciting. I just didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as I could have.

This whole thing makes no sense to me. I don't understand why you would even include an evil Avatar if it's not only a version of the Avatar we're unfamiliar with, but not even one we'd associate with the word. Calling him that sets up certain expectations and, in the case of most viewers, I'm guessing those expectations involved bending more than just water. When he didn't do that, what else could we feel but disappointment?
They could have called him something else - the Dark Vessel, say, or the Dark Prophet - and then there would have been no problem. But no, they called him "Avatar", which instantly brings four series' worth of baggage and expectations with it. Unalaq simply doesn't live up to those expectations. It's like they made it disappointing on purpose.

From the perspective of the writers, I cannot fathom the reason for any of this. They chose a potentially incredible villain, with thematic weight and a plethora of elemental powers; then they stripped him of those things, keeping his name but not much else. In doing so, they've forever bent the meaning of the mythology's central concept - they've entirely changed what it means to be the Avatar - and I don't see a single upside to any of that.

On the other hand, from an in-universe story perspective, I understand the reason all too well. What exactly is the reason Korra can bend all the elements, where Unalaq cannot? Why, it's because of those bloody lion-turtles. It always is.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Gravity Review

Gravity opens with a deafening roar - a wave of sound that rises to drown out the world - and then suddenly cuts to silence. As planet Earth hangs there on the screen, hauntingly beautiful, you realise that you’re holding your breath. And so is every other person in the room. You won’t start breathing again for an hour-and-a-half.

I almost feel I should stop there. That’s all you really need to know about this incredible film: it is breathtaking in more ways than one, and it doesn’t let up for a second.

Gravity is a weird one. I don’t want to say much for fear of spoilers, yet it might be impossible to spoil. What actually happens is just a short list of events that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts go through in linear order. No reveals, no twists, not even much in the way of developments, just a fairly simple journey. The story really isn’t the point, so recounting it won’t spoil anything at all.
What can be spoiled is how this journey, and each event along the way, plays out. What makes this film so special is just how incredibly immersive the experience is. We are not watching them take this journey - we are taking the journey ourselves. For the duration of the film we are actually there, in space, feeling all of the awe and fear that comes with that.

Alfonso Cuarón, director of the superb Children of Men and the best Harry Potter film (Azkaban, obviously), has crafted one of the most powerful, visceral movies I’ve ever seen. Using his trademark über-long takes (that first shot of Earth is something like fifteen-minutes long), incredible dynamic camera work, and some of the best 3D since Avatar, this world swallows you up into its reality. Then it shakes you like a ragdoll. Because it’s not enough for Cuarón to simply put his audience into space, in a more immersive way than anyone ever has before, he has to put us through hell when we get there.

The voice of Houston’s Mission Control is provided by Ed Harris. It’s a wonderful nod to Apollo 13, but it should also give you some idea where this is going. Following the destruction of a Russian satellite, a deadly cloud of space-debris is sent hurtling round the planet towards our shuttle, currently docked with the Hubble Telescope. Things go very wrong very fast, and things continue to spiral breathlessly out of control for the whole rest of the movie.
Things fall apart and explode and tumble weightlessly, just out of reach. The astronauts spin off into the void and, worse, fall towards the planet itself. People run out of oxygen, they run out of fuel, they get tangled in wreckage and constantly - constantly - slammed into things as they fall apart. We feel every moment of it on a primal, emotional level; and, all the time, we’re painfully aware of that satellite wreckage, speeding back around the Earth to take another shot.

Everything Cuarón does is designed to pull us in and make this feel as real as possible, and that it certainly does, but there's two things that deserve special mention. First is his absolute dedication to silence in space. There is, of course, no sound in space, but most films ignore this because it feels weird. Here we see collisions and explosions, but the only sounds are ones the astronauts themselves would hear - distant vibrations through the objects they touch, dampened by their spacesuits. As well as making the world more real, it also adds to the sense of isolation and strangeness of the environment.
The second is Sandra Bullock's performance. Clooney's good too, but as the assured veteran astronaut he's basically just playing George Clooney in space. Bullock, though, is incredible as a medical doctor thrown into this impossible situation. She starts off vulnerable and helpless (as you probably would) but she slowly begins to fight back, determined to make it through. What sold it for me is how she slowly opens up - starting off quiet and dejected, but eventually talking to herself and grinning with adrenalin-fuelled madness. It's exactly how I get if I lock myself out of the house, and I totally bought it. Some have said she's not a very fleshed out character, but she doesn't need to be - because Bullock so inhabits this woman, and because we share her trip through hell, we intimately know her even though we know nothing about her.

There are problems. There's one sequence which doesn't really work, feeling too forced and pulling us out of the world, and there's a moment of symbolism that's beautiful and evocative but goes on for far too long. The most problematic is that, while the whole film frequently bends science for its own purposes, there's one crucial story-moment that hinges on some seriously dodgy physics. But that's more or less it - those are the only hiccups in this otherwise believable and completely immersive universe.

In my review of Rush I called it tense - "cripplingly so" - but Rush is a carefree romp next to Gravity. This film is pure white-knuckle terror; except in those few quiet moments of dread, while you wait for the next thing to go wrong. Those parts are somehow even worse. It's a phenomenal film with truly gorgeous visuals and one amazing central performance. It's not much of a narrative but, bloody hell, it's an experience. Gravity is atmospheric and gripping and unyieldingly intense, and once it has its claws in you it doesn't let go.
The crazy thing is that, as much ridiculous hyperbole as I'm using, I'm still selling it short!

You need to see this film. You need to see it in 3D. And you need to see it right now.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World Review

Dear Man of Steel,
I saw two different films this year that ended with godlike aliens hitting each other impossibly hard over and over again. One of them managed to keep this fresh and interesting, and had personal stakes for the audience to connect to. The other one was you.

Thor: The Dark World manages to keep its final battle entertaining and engaging, even though it's just a repetitive sequence of blows, by constantly changing the nature of the fight. It keeps shifting location, so the visuals never get stale and the fighters have to deal with their environment as well as each other - caught on a collapsing ledge or sliding down a building. The tone keeps shifting too, breaking the tension with funny moments, which makes the serious parts all the more impactful.
Even though the combatants are pretty much invincible, the fight has real peril and danger because there are human characters running around and helping, almost getting killed in the process. It's a battle over the fate of the world - nay, the universe - but it's the fate of these characters that we actually care about. That's also what the hero cares about, fighting to protect these people rather than just fighting to win.

What I'm saying, Man of Steel, is that Thor 2 does everything you didn't. I hope you're taking notes.

Before the ascension of The Avengers, benevolent god-king of superhero movies, the original Thor was the film that, to me, felt most like a comic book. These are silly films about silly people in silly costumes, and Thor's bombastic, over-the-top tone captured that perfectly. It's just so much fun, from its first frame to its last.
But a lot of people disagree. Thor usually gets ranked at the bottom of the Marvel pile for exactly this reason - people don't like that it's silly. So, when Marvel announced that gritty Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor would be at the (winged) helm of the sequel, and later when all the stills and footage looked like Lord of the Rings, there was a real danger that this light-hearted series had been turned into, well, you.
But rest assured, though it even goes so far as having "Dark" in the title, Thor 2 is every bit as light and breezy as its predecessor.

What Taylor does bring is a sense of realism that was missing from Kenneth Branagh's very operatic original. This is the same thing you were aiming for, Man of Steel, but Taylor understands that it needn't sap the joy out of the experience. The acting here is more naturalistic, and Asgard feels much more like a real place, but the movie still knows how to find enjoyment and humour in that - something you completely forgot. Though it does carve out a more believable world for itself, nested within the larger Marvel Universe, that doesn't prevent it from shoving the massive God of Thunder into a tiny car or having Stellan Skarsgård in his pants. Realistic doesn’t have to mean serious.

Yet The Dark World has its share of serious, too. The plot this time kicks off when Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster becomes the unwitting host of the Aether - an ancient, all-purpose alien superweapon. This is staggeringly convenient, of course, but it works because it immediately gives Thor, and us, a reason to heavily invest in what is otherwise a very bland McGuffin. Thor spirits Jane away to Asgard to figure out what’s going on, and the two quickly rekindle their romance because, in both cases, wouldn’t you?
The seriousness comes from the fact that Jane is slowly dying from exposure to the Aether, and that having it also makes her a target for the villains of the piece. They want to use the Aether to destroy the universe but, problematically, they’re also the only ones who can get it out of Jane. This all works to make her a more active part of the story than last time, as she finds herself at the centre of the conflict rather than watching from the sidelines.

For that reason and others, it’s a stronger and more propulsive story than the first Thor, rushing us through scenes and locations where the original often meandered. This is great in that everything feels very urgent and energetic, but not so great in that is skims over things that probably needed more explanation and depth - namely those villains.
The Dark Elves are a race who existed before the universe (somehow) and who now want to destroy that universe. They have awesome designs and technology, which leads to some brilliant action, but there’s barely anything to them. They feel both underused and underserved - especially their leader, Malekith. There's talk of his backstory and motivations, but there's nothing there we can actually latch onto. He basically boils down to angry guy with grudge. He's certainly no Loki - but the film ultimately gets away with that because Loki is Loki, and he's here too.

In a lot of ways this is actually Loki's movie. He has the strongest character journey, going from traitorous prisoner to untrusted ally and beyond. This is probably Tom Hiddleston's best performance yet, as this arc means he can play more than just the jealous prince. Loki gets to be a brother and a son; an enemy and a friend; wrong but also wronged. More than anything else, though, Thor 2 reminds us that Loki is the God of Mischief, not of Evil, and he gets to be far more of a trickster here than he has in the past.

Loki, like Jane, also has more to do. That’s something that applies to almost every character, actually. Even minor players like Kat Denning’s Darcy, Rene Russo’s Frigga, and Idris Elba’s awesome awesome Heimdall are far more involved in the story this time. Sif and the Warriors Three may be missing a member for some reason, and they may even have less screentime, but they feel more fleshed out and have a bigger impact on the plot. Everyone feels necessary and important.
The only person with less to do, weirdly, is Thor himself. Because the main arcs of the film aren’t his - they’re Jane’s and Loki’s - he sometimes seems to just be along for the ride. It’s never a problem, though, because Chris Hemsworth continues to embody the character so wonderfully. Whether he’s cheerfully destroying rock monsters or angrily confronting his brother, Thor is such a great presence that you don’t mind his reduced role.

Any other problems are similarly minor. An important scene involving Malekith's face is mishandled, and a subplot with Sif is implied but never takes off. There's also nothing that comes even close to that one blisteringly hot kiss from the first film. But these are tiny complaints, drowned out by the overwhelming positives - and when Hemsworth gets his shirt off, in a scene that’s somehow even more gratuitous than the first Thor, you’ll be willing to overlook all of them.

Thor: The Dark World is a great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe but, far more than that, it’s a great continuation of the Thor series. It takes the groundwork of the original film and builds upwards in every way. The world and characters are both more fleshed out and more grounded; the story is more focused and polished, and gives every single character (except one) something to do; the action is bigger and better; and all the while it sticks to the world and the light-hearted tone established by its predecessor.

The reason I'm telling you all this, Man of Steel, is that the first Thor suffers from many of the same problems as you: characters are underdeveloped or don't have much to do, and the story is nebulous and unfocused. If Thor 2 can build on these problems to become something stronger, then I'm hoping you can too.
Of course, Thor still worked because it offset these problems with an abundance of fun and energy, where you opted for darkness and brooding. You can learn from Thor 2 here, as well. This world feels as real as yours, without having to sacrifice its sense of humour. It feels more real, in fact, because it's easier to relate to the people who live there.

Failing that, at the very least, please try to learn something from that final action scene. When I watch two space-gods repeatedly punch each other, I want to see variety and creativity, I want to see highs and lows, peaks and troughs, I want to feel real human stakes and, above all else, I want to enjoy it.
And that's exactly what The Dark World delivers.

Best wishes for the future,

P.S. One last thing to learn from Marvel is that you should call your sequel Man of Steel 2, either with or without a subtitle. Dropping the numbers from their non-Iron Man films is the one slip-up Marvel have made thus far, and now is your big chance to exploit it. Who knows - being easy to arrange on a shelf might make all the difference!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Ender's Game Review

Ender's Game is actually a pretty good film. The problem is that it could have been two great films. I've never read Orson Scott Card's novel, so I don't know how long it is, but it's pretty clear that it's too long for a two-hour movie. There's just too much stuff!

Following a devastating war with the alien Formics, humanity has begun training children for military command, based on their inherent unpredictability and outside-the-box thinking. Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is one such recruit - a young prodigy with the potential to be the greatest strategist this world has ever known. It's a strong and interesting setup, but it sometimes feels lost in the mad rush to fit everything else in.
We see Ender go from an Earthbound military academy to an orbital Battle School; train, learn, and progress through the ranks from bottom to top; graduate to an interstellar Command School; train, learn, graduate again; and, of course, command an actual war. Every single one of those sections is handled really well, and each has great moments but, inevitably, they all get somewhat short-changed. It feels like it all happens in about a week where it's supposed to be a few months at least; maybe years.
The Battle and Command School sections could, and probably should, have made good films in their own right. Each has its own arc and its own climax, and each does interesting and unexpected things with the characters and world. But, presumably because Card's book is an unproven property and not an inexplicably popular YA series, it's all been forced into one movie.

With this in mind, the film makes absolutely the best choices it can, focusing most of its attention on Battle School. Where Command School basically consists of Ender and his team playing Sins of a Solar Empire against Ben Kingsley (who is great, as always), Battle School sees him competing against rival children to become top dog. Unlike the later simulated battles, the competition here is real and physical, as the kids play war-games in the spectacular Battle Room. This is essentially zero-G laser-tag (or maybe closer to paintball) so it's easy for us to understand both the rules and the stakes. These sequences are exciting and inventive and they're probably the movie's highlight.
The Battle School offers conflict outside these war-games, too, as Ender is made to struggle every step of the way. This is a cruel place, where Harrison Ford's unfeeling Colonel Graff actively encourages distrust and even hatred, and the workstations have a built-in anonymous bullying system. As a result, this is the place where we see the characters at their most vulnerable, and witness the most growth.

Yet even here, in the longest and most character-centric portion of the film, you can still feel the squeeze of the runtime. There's no quiet, intimate moments to really explore these people - it's all big moments and flat statements of intent. As a result we never feel as invested as we should. As great as the Battle Room sequences are, we're watching them passively instead of engaging with them. When the finale comes - when Ender finally faces the real horrors of war, in what should be a very powerful moment - we feel almost nothing. It's not that the film has failed to make us care, it's that it simply didn't have time.

There's a similar problem with the central ideas, as well as emotions. We're repeatedly told that Ender is a genius, and that the Formics are an overwhelming threat to humanity, but we never get to see either for ourselves. Ender's tactics are quickly glossed over, and we never even see a Formic until the battles at the end. It's all so rushed.
I keep going back to this because it's really the only thing holding Ender's Game back. It's a very strong film otherwise. Asa Butterfield is brilliant as Ender - both a child and a leader - and he's supported by strong performances from all the kids and adults around him, especially Ford. The ideas are clever and intriguing, the designs are striking - particularly that Battle Room - and the action is unique if not quite spectacular.

I really did like this film, all told, but I'm not sure I can recommend it. The problems are just a bit too pervasive and they sour the experience. I suspect that, somewhere, there's a three-to-four-hour director's cut of this film and, if that's the case, I hope that we one day get to see it. That version I would recommend in a second.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Social Mediation

"Wait!" I hear you cry. "A post about tech on a blog called NerdTech?!"
Ridiculous, I know, but there is a reason. Last week I made an important change to the way I use technology. I thought it was quite a small thing at the time, but it's already changed my life.
First, let me ask you a question:

What is Facebook for?

I mean, really - what's its purpose? I vaguely remember a time when I used to know the answer, but these days I'm not sure there's an answer at all. Facebook isn't really for anything any more; Facebook just is.

If you'd asked me five years ago, I'd have told you that Facebook's purpose was to keep in touch with friends. A place to see what they were doing and thinking, and to chat about it in their comments or on their wall. For an antisocial troglodyte like myself, it helped me feel connected. No, more than that - it kept me connected. Maybe it could be used another way, but this is certainly how I used it and it seemed to be designed with that in mind. The whole interface was based around making statuses as visible and accessible as possible.
Compare that to how Facebook works now. It's almost impossible to hunt down basic text statuses in the sprawling mass of my news feed. It's all pictures and links and videos and bloody Candy Crunch invitations. Statuses are the least visible thing on the page because they take up minimal space and they don't have graphics attached. You have to physically search through this mess to find out what your friends are up to - something which used to be so simple and integral to the site. It no longer serves its purpose.

Maybe - maybe - this wouldn't be such a problem if Facebook had found a new purpose instead, and turned from one kind of tool into another. But it didn't. The closest thing it has to a purpose is still to keep people in touch, but now it's really bad at it.
If you squint a little, it almost looks like Facebook has become a photo gallery instead. It's certainly more set up for that kind of use - but that's not actually how people use it. I counted for a couple of days and, while images make up roughly two thirds of my feed, less than half of those are actually photos, and many of those photos are "selfies" or pictures of pets, which barely count. The rest are... well, they're infuriating nonsense, aren't they. We all know it. And they were driving me away.

Two years ago I joined Twitter. I only did it as a means for job-hunting and news, and I never thought I'd tweet very much. I use social media to talk to people I know, not to shout hopelessly in an endless void of strangers. But lately I've found myself choosing Twitter over Facebook. As I've slowly drifted away from one I've moved towards the other. Twitter still values the text-based status updates I want from social media, and I like being a part of that.
I barely post to Facebook any more, except to share this blog and, ironically, to complain about Facebook itself. I just don't want to be involved in the ugly chaos I always find there. Turns out I'd rather shout into a void than a deafening storm.

Last weekend, I finally snapped.

It started with Bitstrips. I logged into Facebook and the page was flooded with these terrible, unfunny cartoons. Where the hell did they suddenly come from? Doesn't matter; they invaded over night, they were everywhere, and they made me want to burn things.
I have no idea if people are still posting them or if they were just an overnight fad, because I blocked them almost immediately. But it was too late; the damage was done. I have never hated a website as much as I did that morning.

So, in some kind of blood-rage, I retreated to Twitter for a few days to recover. That's when things got worse.
Two days later, Twitter suddenly made all its images visible all the time. Where, before, you would have to click a tweet to see an attached image, now there is always a preview. If you don't use Twitter, you're probably imagining a little thumbnail of some kind - but no, these are massive pixel-hogging monsters. Four of these previews takes up the entire screen.
In one quick moment, my Twitter stream became my Facebook feed. Half the space, if not half the posts, were taken up with images - and I knew it was only going to get worse. I was still so angry at Facebook, and now its replacement was heading the same way. This was the beginning of the end.

Slowly, though, I convinced myself that it wasn't as bad as I thought; that I could live with a few George Takei pictures on my screen. I slept on it, sure that it wouldn't annoy me so much in the morning. I was wrong.
The next day there were Bitstrips on Twitter.

I wanted to throw my laptop across the room! It was already everything I feared and hated - the e-cards of ladies in big hats couldn't be far off. I couldn't take it. I'd had enough. I wanted out - out of these social networks and everything that tied me to them.
In a moment of rage and madness, I uninstalled every single app on my phone. Why I punished my phone over my laptop, or why I went so far, I don't know - I wasn't really thinking straight. I wanted some of them gone so I got rid of everything... I'm sure it made sense at the time.

Since then, I have reinstalled a 3G usage monitor, a file-manager, a word-processor (to write these blogs), one game, and a web-browser. That's all. And, incredibly, this has totally changed how I use social media.
Because of course I couldn't stay away. As angry as I was, and as awful as Facebook has become at keeping people in touch, it is still my only link to many of my friends. But, without any apps, I've been viewing them through Opera Mini - a browser designed to be as simple as possible. It's so simple, in fact, that it can't display the more recent versions of many websites - instead running clumsy ancient sites from before the rise of iPhone and Android.

The old Facebook site doesn't support plugins (so messages from Farmville or Bitstrips don't appear), it doesn't add graphics to links, and images only appear as tiny thumbnails. It's designed with an emphasis on text and statuses - easy to locate updates without having to wade through a sea of memes. It is exactly what I want from Facebook.
The old Twitter site is a lot less old and still runs a lot like the app, but it doesn't show pictures and that's great. As the site becomes an unfocused mess - as it will now that it's publicly owned - I'll still only be able to see text. That's enough for me.
Already, I find myself using Facebook far more. I know what's going on in people's lives again, and I want to be involved. I've commented and posted more times this past week than I have in months. It feels useful again!

The silly part is that, even though I'm using these sites more, I'm actually checking them much less. It's another unexpected benefit of these older websites. I'm a completist - slightly OCD - and until now I've had to read every single status update since the last time I checked. I just had to - the page kept scrolling and so did I. On Facebook this meant I couldn't help going through all the crap on my feed, much as it was slowly driving me crazy, and on Twitter it meant I could only follow about twenty-five people, otherwise I'd be reading new updates forever.
These older mobile sites, though, don't keep scrolling. Twitter only displays twenty tweets, and Facebook only shows seven - and, somehow, that cancels out my OCD. I reach the bottom of the page and I can stop. It means I'm no longer obsessively checking my phone all the time, and when I do I don't do it for long. I have so much more time now, especially in the morning, that it's actually depressing. It also means I can follow more people on Twitter - I can actually start using it like a normal person.

There's no downside to this! I went crazy for a few moments and, somehow, it saved me from all the problems I have with social media. Stripping back the extra features of these sites - making them simple and text-based again - gives them back their purpose, and a reason to use them. They are for something.
I've actually stopped using Twitter on computers now, because the pictures are so horrible and because the compulsion to keep scrolling and read every tweet is still there. Facebook's less of a problem because it's such a different experience that it's actually kind of funny. I can laugh at how much rubbish is on my PC screen, knowing that I no longer have to put up with it.
Online-Matthew is a much happier guy.

He'd be even happier if you all used Google+, though.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 Review

First off, can we all agree that the original title, Cloudy 2: Revenge of the Leftovers, is brilliant and they should have stuck with it? Ok, good - on with the review.

I never saw the original Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in the cinema, because I thought it looked really really stupid. When I did finally see it, at two in the morning in a deserted zoo (don't ask), I discovered that it is, in fact, really really stupid - and that's exactly what makes it so great!
If you haven't seen it, just know that it is gloriously insane. Everything from the animation to the plot is manic and hyperactive and completely nuts. I'd call it "random", but that quite often means annoying or aimless or tedious, and it's none of those things. It's a focused, polished and sometimes even moving story that just happens to also be demented.
It's about wannabe inventor Flint Lockwood (which must always be said in the voice of Mr T) and his machine that makes food rain from the sky. The device goes crazy - well, crazier - and Flint, with help from various other assorted nutters, must stop it before their island town of Swallow Falls is completely destroyed by food-storms.

The story this time revolves around Flint's relationship with his childhood hero, my dad. Calling himself "Chester V" for some reason, my dad and his suspiciously Apple-like tech empire are tasked with cleaning up Swallow Falls after the disaster. It doesn't go well, and it quickly becomes apparent that Flint's machine is still active, spewing out monstrous cheeseburger-spiders and other dangerous living food. Chester recruits Flint, the only one who understands the machine, to go back to the now food-swamped island and shut it down for good.
Cue an endless string of food-related animal puns which, to their credit, continue to be funny even if some of them are a bit of a stretch (if a hippotatomas is an animal made of food, surely a shrimpanzee is an animal made of other animals).

The main difference between Cloudys 1 and 2 is that, while the first film had a fair-sized bunch of different characters, they were each involved in a different part of the plot and only came together right at the end - and then only some of them. This time every major character from the original follows Flint around right from the start.
While they are all fun and interesting, the truth is that these characters don't have much to do. Cameraman Manny and hyperkinetic cop Earl (sadly no longer voiced by Mr T) are both super-capable characters and that’s the joke, but meteorologist Sam Sparks is reduced purely to the role of love-interest, Flint’s father goes through the exact same arc as last time, and eternal hanger-on Chicken-Brent has literally no reason to be there. As minor characters become main characters, and new minor characters are introduced, you can definitely feel the kind of character-creep that suffocated both the Shrek and Ice Age series.
Happily, though, while having too many characters doesn’t help the story, it doesn’t hurt the story either. The main conflict here is that Flint is torn between his childhood idol and his friends, and in that respect having a large group of friends actually works pretty well. I just wish they were more involved in the actual events.

You'll notice that, though the food-island setting is suitably whacky, this seems far more of a standard movie plot than last time. Likewise, much of the humour comes from standard jokes and repetition, rather than the sheer creative randomness of the original. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just different - it still had me laughing like an idiot and twice I couldn't even breathe.
As with the first film, most of the best jokes are sight-gags, and these are uniformly excellent. Visually the film is just so inventive and crazy that you can’t help but love it - I could have happily watched the watermelephants and shallotosaurs for hours, just living on this island. The fact that we get Steve the monkey going constantly and hilariously nuts is just the sentient cherry on top.
The animation, too, is completely sublime, with Flint mashing at keyboards with his palms and Earl bouncing and rolling when he could just walk. Chester V, in particular, seems to have no bones - flowing across the screen like an eel and occasionally having far too many hands (again, don't ask). Chester, with apologies to my dad, is no Bruce Campbell, but his bizarre movements more than make up for that.

So, Cloudy 2 is still very funny, if not quite as dizzily inventive as its predecessor. It’s a visual treat, with a vibrant and creative world that somehow manages to instil wonder as well as non-stop humour. While these aspects are still built from top-notch insanity, the plot is a definite step down and the cracks of franchise-fatigue are beginning to show. It’s still highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed the first one, though, and to pretty much anyone else. This film will make you smile and laugh - a lot - and that’s more than enough reason to celebrate. Right, Steve?

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Oh, the Horror!

In the original Evil Dead - Sam Raimi's 1981 horror extravaganza - the characters unwittingly find the Naturon Demonto, the Sumerian Book of the Dead. This book has the power to release unspeakable evil into the world but, strangely, the evil doesn't escape when they read from this cursed book, but rather when they listen to a recording of someone else reading from it. I tell you this as a cautionary tale - there is no doubt that something similar will happen if you listen to this week's Nerds Assemble Podcast!

Found chained up in the creepy basement of an old shack in the woods, this recording features the excellent talents of Emily King and Paul Blewitt, and some gibbering idiot called Matthew Hurd.
The team very kindly invited me to take part in their Hallowe'en special, to talk about a selection of horror films and their more recent remakes, and I had a really great time. Y'know, until zombies started clawing at the windows and the trees started getting frisky; then it was less fun.

In truth I haven't actually listened to it, because I want to maintain the illusion that I didn't embarrass myself too much. I was stupidly nervous - I could barely speak at the beginning (I didn't insult Zack Snyder even once during the Dawn of the Dead talk) and by the end I think I was overcompensating, but hopefully some of the stuff in the middle makes sense!

While it might not necessarily release the unstoppable forces of evil, this podcast will definitely release the unfortunate forces of spoil. There's spoilers throughout for Dawn of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Maniac, Maniac, The Evil Dead, and Evil Dead, so be careful. I don't think these spoilers will ruin any of the films, but the Maniac and Evil Dead remakes, at least, are probably best seen fresh.

You can find the Nerds Assemble special Hallowe'en edition right here, and the rest of their episodes here.

I had great fun doing this, despite ridiculous stage-fright, and I really appreciate their asking me to. Thanks, guys; I hope we can do it again some time!
Now, could you let me out of this basement, please? I swear I'm back to normal now. And I'm really sorry about the thing with the pencil. Guys? Anyone? Please?

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Lion-Turtles All The Way Down

There is a story (which nobody seems to know the origin of) that a flat-Earther, when asked what held the world up, answered that it rested on the back of an enormous turtle. When asked what held up the turtle, they said it was on top of another turtle. Then that turtle rested on another turtle, and so on. "It's turtles all the way down."

I'm beginning to suspect that Avatar - the cartoon, not the movie - works in a similar way.

Avatar is something I've talked about a couple of times but never actually bothered to explain. It's a Nickelodeon cartoon that uses eastern mythology and symbolism to tell an epic multi-generational story of people who can control one of the elements - known as "benders" (stop laughing) - and the one person who can control all four elements - the Avatar. It comes in two flavours: original medieval eastern flavour, The Last Airbender (or sometimes The Legend of Aang), and seventy-year-later now-they-suddenly-have-1950s-western-technology flavour, The Legend of Korra.
Both versions are fantastic. I wrote some confused and confusing praise of Last Airbender, and David did a much better job of explaining why Korra is awesome. Basically they're both great and you should watch them.

The current series of Avatar (the second series of Legend of Korra and the fifth series overall) recently revealed the origin of the first ever Avatar, a gangly street-kid called Wan.
This double-episode special - Beginnings - was gorgeous. The second series has been animated by a different studio and (say it quietly) it's not quite as good as the first, but these two episodes were handled by the original studio and they looked stunning. Wan's story is stylised to look like ancient oriental art, and the elemental effects especially are oh so pretty. Though it riffed a little too hard on Spirited Away (the Carrot Spirit was a bit much, guys) I loved what they showed us of this ancient world.
After a hilariously rushed setup - "Quick, Korra has amnesia; better dunk her in the magical memory-pond!" - it tells a great story, too. Wan is the first Avatar, a true hero, but he's also the reason the world needs a hero in the first place. He's the root cause of all the problems the many Avatars have had to face. It's really clever, and the idea of the Avatar as a melding of human and spirit is clever too, handily explaining both the reincarnation cycle and the Avatar State, and making this a story about friendship rather than superpowers.

While I loved the explanation of the Avatar's spiritual side, the explanation of the Avatar's powers - Wan's ability to bend all four elements - is far less successful.

Until now the show's lore has maintained that humans originally taught themselves to bend by watching local animals that could do it naturally - namely badger-moles, dragons, sky-bison and, um, the Moon. In Beginnings we learn that this isn't true. Humans never actually learned to bend at all, they just had the power handed to them by lion-turtles.
This even changes Aang's story. When the infamous lion-turtle-ex-machina touched him, we assumed it was teaching him the pressure-points for energybending; but, based on what we see in Beginnings, it now seems the lion-turtle was actually just dumping the power of energybending into him. It's even lamer than we thought.

This has really bothered me. It takes away the specialness of bending - it's now a gift that was just given to people, rather than something they earnt through hard work. I think the show was trying to evoke the myth of Prometheus - but that guy stole fire from the gods, they didn't just hand it over willingly. The lion-turtles seemingly bestow this incredible power upon anyone who asks, regardless of who they are or what they might do with it.
Even worse, though, is how much it devalues the Avatar. We learn that the reason Wan can bend every element - the secret of the Avatar's unique power and the central concept of the entire mythology - is that he just happened to meet more than one lion-turtle. He's no more special than any other bender or even any other human, he's just more travelled. There is nothing unique about the Avatar.

This is a real shame, and it begs the question why Wan is the only Avatar (in the bending sense rather than spiritual)? Why didn't anyone else ever meet other lion-turtles? Well, here's where the story gets kind of disturbing, and where I start to make my point.

In Wan's time, the human race only existed in cities built upon the enormous shells of lion-turtles. There were many of these cities (at least a dozen, we are told) but no city was aware that any other city existed - they all thought they were the only one. This is why no human before Wan ever met more than one lion-turtle.
There's no denying that having cities on the back of these enormous animals is a very cool image, and leads to some great moments in the show, but it also leads to some troubling questions. How did this situation arise in the first place? How long ago was that, since the humans seem to have long forgotten any other way of life? And why did the lion-turtles never tell their respective humans about the other cities?

The only explanation that seems to make sense (that I can see, at least) is that the lion-turtles have taken it upon themselves to protect humanity from the spirits. In keeping the other cities secret, perhaps the lion-turtles are trying to protect their humans from venturing into the dangerous Spirit Wilds to look for them.
Yet this doesn't seem to make much sense either. The spirits we meet don't seem particularly fond of humans, but (at least until Wan frees Vaatu) they never attack unless threatened - and the only time the humans can threaten them is when the lion-turtles give the humans superpowers. The humans wouldn't need protection from the spirits if their protectors didn't keep giving them power against the spirits.

Maybe I'm wrong, and the spirits would violently wipe out the humans if they didn't have the lion-turtles' protection. But, in that case, the lion-turtles don't seem particularly dedicated. If we accept that they don't want the humans to seek out the other cities, because crossing the Spirit Wilds is dangerous, then it's weird that they don't seem bothered about letting the humans outright invade the Spirit Wilds.
"We don't want to live on your backs any more," say the humans. "Give us the power of bending so that we may drive the spirits from the homes they have lived in for centuries, and claim them for ourselves." Without a moment's hesitation, the lion-turtles - protectors of humanity and keepers of the peace - hand over these incredible powers, which the humans don't really understand or respect.
When, predictably enough, forests get burnt down, spirits get angered, and nature itself becomes unbalanced, it seems like we're supposed to blame the humans for it, and the humans alone. This, just so we're clear, is bullshit.

The lion-turtles' attitude to bending, and their ability to just bestow it upon humans at will, is summed up best by the banishment of Wan. He is thrown out of his lion-turtle city specifically because he misused the power of firebending - he has demonstrated that he cannot be trusted to use bending responsibly. He has not earnt it and he does not deserve it. And the lion-turtle lets him keep it!
That's just mindblowing to me, that one of the wise and ancient guardians of humanity would be so irresponsible with this power. It is the lion-turtle's responsibility - in the same way that if I give a weapon to a child, whatever happens is my responsibility. Yet the lion-turtles unleashed these selfish, dangerous, superpowered humans upon the world, causing untold damage and suffering, and then vanished into obscurity.

I can understand how this happened from a real-world standpoint, though. It seems like the writers, knowing what a painfully obvious plot-contrivance Last Airbender's original lion-turtle was, have tried to make them into a more relevant part of the mythology. But, in doing so, they have made the lion-turtles the cause of every single thing that happens, from the shape of human history to the existence of the Avatar. They are no longer just a plot-contrivance - they are every plot-contrivance!

I've done that that thing again where I'm unfairly critical of something I actually enjoyed, and I'm sorry for that. I really did love Beginnings and the story of Wan and Raava. It made the entire cartoon about the dying promise of two friends, ten-thousand years ago, and that's both ballsy and brilliant. But, much as I love the idea of that touching ending, I can't help questioning the specifics:

Wan, the Avatar, dies because of the chaos he unleashed, caught in a war between different tribes, each armed with different kinds of benders.

Or, more accurately, Wan, the Avatar because lion-turtles made him the Avatar, dies because of the chaos he unleashed with firebending that he was given by a lion-turtle, caught in a war between different tribes who were defined and kept separate by lion-turtles, each armed with different kinds of benders who were given their powers by lion-turtles.

It's lion-turtles all the way down...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Mangaphobia 05: Fullmetal Alchemist

A thank you, first, to everyone who's given me recommendations for Mangaphobia so far. This episode is the one where I've truly stepped outside my comfort zone - watching something I knew absolutely nothing about beforehand - and I couldn't possibly be writing it without you. Of everything suggested to me, this show has been by far the most common and popular, so it seems the logical place to dive in. Wish me luck!

There is a moment in Akira (the seminal anime movie of, well, ever) where a girl almost gets raped. I actually really like Akira - it's the most consistent anime, in terms of tone, quality, message, and every other respect, that I've seen - and I respect it greatly for playing that scene as traumatic rather than titillating (ahem). But then, after the heroes save her, one of them laughs and, for a moment, he bounces on the spot with horrible jerky animation and these little white mushrooms of air float out of his mouth. That moment is so out of place - so at odds with everything else in the film and especially that scene - that it fundamentally broke Akira for me. When I think of that film, bouncy mushroom guy is the first thing that comes to mind, and it takes a few seconds to remember all the great parts instead.

I'm sure there's a name for this - the horrible thing in anime and manga where they slap giant floating "vein" lines over someone's head, or little wiggly rivers coming out of their eyes - but I don't know what that name is. Lets go with "sweatdropping", in honour of the most common offender.
This crap doesn't even work in absurd comedy like Azumanga Daioh, so when it appears in something as serious and adult as Akira it actually makes my teeth hurt. I don't understand why anyone does this - it's not funny and it destroys the tone and drama of whatever else is going on. Just draw some actual human emotions on their faces, damnit!

Enter Fullmetal Alchemist.
This is a show absolutely littered with sweatdropping of the most gratuitous and inappropriate kind. In just the first ten minutes we go from scenes of an incredibly horrific childhood accident to suddenly having those same children turn into ridiculous chibis. Characters die in legitimately upsetting ways, and then others will do the silly waterfall-tears thing about it. In the middle of dramatic fights and vital plot revelations, people's faces will suddenly turn into emoticons. I praised Cowboy Bebop for having a varied tone that shifts gently between drama and comedy, but the tone here swerves so often and so violently that it almost gave me a hilarious anime nosebleed.

Yet, counter to all common sense and previous experience, Fullmetal Alchemist works.

This confused me for ages, but I think I've finally figured out how it works and why. The problem with the sweatdropping in Akira, and in pretty much everything else, is that it's jarringly at odds with the tone (and art-style) of the rest of the film. There's a consistent look and feel to everything that gets suddenly shattered by something totally different. But the reason it feels so inconsistent is not purely because the sweatdropping happens - it's because it only happens once. In the entire film, the breath-mushrooms are the only time we see anything like this, so it sticks out like a sore thumb.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, where it's happening all the time, these sudden, violent gear-changes don't clash with the tone because they sort of are the tone. The show is consistent in its inconsistency, if that makes any kind of sense.

Don't get me wrong - the sweatdropping is still by far the worst thing about the show. For the first few episodes the tonal dissonance is almost too much to cope with - alternately dark as hell and childishly stupid - and even after you settle into it there are still many moments that don't work. The most serious character in the show suddenly announces, in a scene with much sweatdropping and even a nosebleed, that his ultimate plan is to force all women to wear tiny skirts - and, because we'd never even seen him smile before, I honestly couldn't tell if he was joking or not.
On the whole, though, the sweatdropping works. It's not funny (because it's never funny) and I personally don't think it adds anything - but it doesn't cause any problems either, just becoming a (very weird) part of the show's texture.

And what a show it is! Fullmetal Alchemist is the tale of the Elric brothers - two teenage alchemists who get embroiled in war, politics and ungodly supernatural horror.
Alchemy in the show is magic treated as a science, or possibly vice versa; the manipulation of matter, at the chemical level, using arcane circles. With it, alchemists can do pretty much anything - except, as the Elrics gruesomely discover, the manipulation of human beings. The brothers' forbidden meddling leaves Edward, the eldest, missing two limbs and Alphonse, the youngest, a bodiless soul fused to an empty suit of armour.

Already, these are two of the most interesting characters I've ever seen in an anime. As what is essentially a robot, Al is invincible, immortal and impossibly strong; yet, as the younger brother, he's the more naive and emotionally vulnerable. Likewise, as the eldest, Ed is incredibly protective of his brother and feels responsible for him, despite Al being three times his size and made of metal. They're inseparable and entirely devoted to one-another, and the back-to-front sibling dynamic between them is wonderful.

Together, the Elrics set out to find the one source of alchemical energy great enough to restore their bodies: the fabled Philosopher's Stone (or "Sorcerer’s Stone" to American Harry Potter fans). Also hunting the stone are a sinister group of superhuman creatures, the scarred assassin of a persecuted religion, the entire fascist military state, and more besides.
Each of these groups comes with their own characters and their own plots, and they're all engaging and deep. As the separate stories intertwine with the brothers' the show keeps us guessing - allies become villains and villains become allies and we, like the Elrics, are never sure what's true or who to trust.

While all these colliding stories do sometimes get quite convoluted, they thankfully never get confusing. When there are things we don't understand it's only because the characters don't understand them either, never because they're explained badly or obtusely withheld from us. After suffering through Evangelion for the last couple of months this direct approach is, frankly, quite a relief.

In fact, thinking about it, Fullmetal Alchemist is almost the anti-Evangelion in a lot of ways. There's a lot of thematic overlap between the two - they both grapple with the same ideas - but where Eva loudly draws attention to its themes and then does nothing with then, Alchemist lets them simmer under the surface quietly making a specific point. Both shows are fundamentally about what it means to be human and the nature of the soul - yet only one of them bothers to explore what a soul actually is and whether or not it matters.
Both shows also deal with dead mothers, absent fathers, child soldiers, loss, obsession, ambition, sins of the past, death, resurrection, science, religion; and, in every single case, Fullmetal Alchemist is less overt about these ideas, yet does much more with them in a fraction of the time.

The strongest example of this is that, in just two episodes, it explores existentialism better than Evangelion's entire series of Shinji talking to himself. During a couple of mid-series episodes, Al panics that he has no way of knowing if he is truly Alphonse Elric or just a construct with false memories. It's a pretty touching little story thread that brings the brothers closer together; and when it unexpectedly came up again during the finale, with much higher stakes, it actually made me burst into tears.

It admittedly isn't that hard to make me cry, but Fullmetal Alchemist is the first Japanese cartoon that's ever managed it. That says an awful lot about how powerful and involving this series is.

Though it's telling an epic story with a lot of moving parts, the emphasis is always squarely on character. Yet, crucially, it maintains that single-minded focus without ever becoming melodramatic. Everything is intimate and personal, and we can't help but care.
When it's dealing with massive socio-political problems (and it often is) we see them through the eyes of the Elrics - and because we care about them, we care about what they care about. New characters are handled the same way: we meet them through the brothers and we feel however they feel. It's economical and clever and the show uses it to shocking emotional effect.
The picture to the right is from only the seventh episode, and it will instantly break the heart of anyone who has seen the series. It's a plotline that was only introduced in the previous episode, and involves a character who's, frankly, kind of annoying. Yet it's completely devastating - it tears your heart out of your chest and squeezes out every drop of emotion. And it's far from the last time this happens. Hell, I'm not even sure it's the first.

The show keeps up this same level of pathos right 'til the end, then somehow goes one further. The finale is poignant and bittersweet and amazing. It's the perfect ending for this show, too, because it's purely about Ed and Al, and their love for each other. I'm fairly certain it will stick with me forever; it did make me cry, after all. You never forget your first.

I’m kind of in awe of this series. I intended to only review the first half of the fifty-episodes and come back to it later, but it's so compelling that I couldn't stop until it was over. Even now I'm struggling to understand how it can be so engaging. It has so many problems that it really shouldn't work!
The plot is needlessly complex, for one thing, and probably has too many characters (though it uses them well). Someone trips and grabs a boob, for another. But, mainly, the tone is just all over the damn place. It's either brutally dark or aiming for (and usually missing) really immature jokes. There's one character who only exists to comically lose his shirt and sparkle like a vampire, yet that same character once participated in genocide. There is powerful, moving imagery, and there is sweatdropping. It's very clever, with deep themes and strong ideas, but at the same time it's so stupid.

Yet, somehow, Fullmetal Alchemist takes all these incompatible elements and combines them into something greater. It turns these base metals into gold, if you will. It's alchemy - and it's driven by two fantastic central characters and the unbreakable bond between them.