Thursday, 31 January 2013

John Carter and the Threequel Test

I recently watched Andrew Stanton's John Carter for the second time. When I saw it in the cinema I remember enjoying it, but thinking that something was missing, or that the pieces didn't fit together quite right. I knew something was off, at any rate, which kept me from enjoying the film as much as I wanted.
If you'd asked me last week what my issues were, I would have been more specific. I might have been able to point out some of the moments that didn't quite work - notably the stuff with the Therns, and maybe the River Iss sequence - and that John himself is not massively likeable, or even relatable, for much of the movie.
But on my second viewing these problems just melted away and I had an absolute blast! This means that John Carter is what my brother David and I call a Spider-Man; and a strong one at that.

Let's start with the basics: There are Good films and there are Bad films. There are Ok films, too, but that's just a subcategory of Good. You look at most films and you know which kind they are. But there is also a fuzzy grey area in between where movies sometimes get caught. Films you found disappointing but couldn't pin down why - or films you enjoyed but feel guilty about enjoying. Sequels, quite often, that didn't live up to the original's promise.
Usually you'll subconsciously label these movies Bad, because you don't have anywhere else to put them. But do they actually deserve that fate, and how can we tell?

A friend of mine has something she calls the Catwoman Test. Essentially you compare any film to Catwoman - an objectively Bad movie - and, if it's better than that, then it's not truly as bad as you thought. It makes sense, but I've never been a fan of this approach.
My issue is that it's too binary - it assumes "better" and "worse" are quantifiable, when there are so many factors involved in whether or not a film works that it's a difficult thing to judge. Look at something like Prometheus. Compared to Catwoman it's clearly a superior film... but it's not necessarily better. I'm not saying it's worse, either. But it does a few things so horribly wrong, compared to Catwoman's bland failure on all fronts, that it's very hard to tell.
Putting together my Top 5 last year was a nightmare because I was comparing a bunch of films that were all spectacularly good at entirely different things. The same applies when different films get different things wrong, too. Comparing movies is not an easy thing to do, so I don't think it makes a decent yard-stick.

What David and I do instead is to compare films to themselves. I've only just realised how pretentious that sounds - but it works!
It's a phenomenon we first identified in 2007, following the disappointing release of Spider-Man 3, and X-Men 3 the previous year. These were both films that fell into that grey area - disappointing but still enjoyable; not living up to their predecessors, but not necessarily bad on their own terms.
Then we saw them both again.
We were surprised to find that Spider-Man 3 was much better than we remembered! The problems were still there, but they were diminished somehow - they were now just annoying instead of crippling. We were also surprised to find that X-Men 3 was somehow much much worse. The film had been disappointing the first time, but now it was falling apart - the problems were magnified, multiplied, and on fire. When we first sat down for the second viewings we'd have said they were roughly of equal quality, but now that was clearly ridiculous.
We were even more surprised to discover that this effect continued beyond a second viewing. The third time around, Spider-Man 3 was really enjoyable, where X-Men 3 bordered on unwatchable!

The effect isn't isolated to these two films, either. It's common to the vast majority of grey-area movies - we haven't found one yet that doesn't reveal its true nature over time.
Presumably this works because multiple viewings remove expectations and preconceptions - forcing you to accept the film for what it is. Or maybe (as I believe is the case with John Carter) weird narrative choices don't seem so strange the second time, because you already have all the information. Sometimes this can liberate a movie and you'll realise that it's actually pretty damn good; but if it still disappoints you - if it's somehow even worse than you remember - then it must be an awful film indeed.
A film doesn't have to be worse than Catwoman to be truly Bad - it only has to be worse than itself.

This has since become mine and David's standard metric: Is a film a Spider-Man 3 or an X-Men 3? We've never formally named it, but the Threequel Test will do for now, in honour of its two defining movies.
The downside is that it requires watching films that may well be Bad twice, or even more; but chances are, if you can't bring yourself to watch it a second time, then you know already that it's genuinely Bad. Otherwise, for every X-Men Origins: Wolverine that becomes increasingly toxic over time, you might discover an Emperor's New Groove - the strongest Spider-Man of all time - which turns from thudding confusion the first time into purer and purer gold with each viewing.

Emily's example of a film that's often called Bad but which passes the Catwoman Test - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - also passes the Threequel Test. It's an easy Spider-Man: much better the second time around.
Looking at another series that's often labelled Bad, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a potent X-Men - truly a Bad film - but Dark of the Moon is actually a decent Spider-Man. The original Transformers is, of course, just an outright Good movie.
More recent grey-area examples include The Dark Knight Rises (a weak Spider-Man) and Prometheus (a solid X-Men).
And I'll begrudgingly admit that my brother's favourite example, GI Joe, is a Spider-Man - just don't tell him I said that.

Essentially, I've just used a thousand words to say "watch films more than once". It seems obvious, but it's all too common to judge a film immediately. I was disappointed, so the film must be Bad. I do it; you do it; but to do it is to miss out on the likes of John Carter. I'd have been apprehensive about recommending it a week ago, but now I can confidently say that it passes the Threequel Test easily and is actually a Good film. Better than that, it's actually kind of brilliant.
The next film I'll be testing is Wanted - an unashamedly stupid film that I got for Christmas and was shocked to discover I really enjoyed. It's sat squarely in the grey-area - an oh-so-guilty pleasure - and I'm really looking forward to discovering what kind of Threequel it is.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Jar Jar Abrams

"JJ Abrams to direct Star Wars film!"

I read that headline last night and, though my reaction wasn't nearly as intense as last time, I did groan slightly. Which is weird, and not at all the reaction I would have expected. So I've spent the last sixteen-or-so hours trying to figure out why.

I actually really like Abrams. I'm not massively familiar with his TV work (though I did watch Lost all the way through to its facepalm of an ending) but his three films so far are all great. Mission: Impossible III and Super 8 are very very good, and Star Trek is just fantastic.
It's pretty obvious Star Trek is the reason he's got this gig. As a lot of people have pointed out, in many ways Star Trek is a better Star Wars movie than at least two of the actual Star Wars movies. It has action; it has daring-do; it has a sense of humour, but not an immature one (ahem). Importantly, it has the narrow focus on a core team of characters that separates Lucas' original trilogy from the prequels. It has melodrama and heightened emotion, but it never devolves from space opera to soap opera.
All this suggests that JJ should be perfect, so why do I still have doubts?

I think the problem is the opposite of the one I have with Snyder. Where Snyder is tonally deaf, Abrams can find the right tone perfectly. Even if he hadn't made the perfect audition-tape in Star Trek, his other films demonstrate this just as well. Super 8 brilliantly captures the tone of ET and The Goonies, and M:I:III (note the heartless abuse of colons) strikes a perfect balance between De Palma's serious, gloomy first film and John Woo's glossy, pulpy (utterly terrible) second.
The problem is that all three of those have one thing in common: they all look like JJ Abrams films. They all have the same style. High contrast; oversaturated; often tinted green or blue; shot hand-held; lots of camera movement; frenetic editing; dutch-angles; and JJ's own unique brand of shakycam. Also lensflares. Lots of them.
Abrams knows and controls his tone in a way that Snyder cannot - but where Snyder excels in capturing the look of his source, Abrams' films always look like Abrams.

Star Wars on the other hand, despite the latter entries being mostly bluescreen affairs, has always been shot traditionally. The camera is fairly static, the editing not too fast, and the colours and lighting always pretty naturalistic. It's weird, but I think I'm worried that it won't look like Star Wars any more.
There's a million arguments against this. A new director should be allowed to leave their mark on a series, as with Harry Potter or Bond. Star Wars probably should be dragged up-to-date, with its silly old-fashioned wipes and irises. JJ has only made three films and never tried to emulate a style before, so suggesting he can't do it is entirely unfair.

Nevertheless, I am still irrationally worried by this news. But, all things considered, I'd much rather a Star Wars film that doesn't look like Star Wars than some other kind of film that does. The substance always outweighs the style.
With that in mind, the franchise is in good hands.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Fake Non-Geeks

Last night the gym had the TV set to wrestling. It was WWE: Raw, apparently. I imagine they call it "raw" because that's the only sound some of these wrestlers seem able to make (except for the one guy who just kept shouting "NO!" over and over for no reason).

I'd never actually seen it before, I realised. All I knew about it was what I'd picked up from others at school, back when it was the WWF.
What I learnt at school was that wrestling was what the cool kids talked about when they weren't laughing at us for liking comics. I learnt that it was what they watched on TV when we were watching cartoons. I learnt that it was incredibly manly and adult and mature, compared to the childish superheroes and stuff that we liked.

So when I saw Raw - watching a bunch of misproportioned musclemen with stupid names perform elaborately choreographed fights in personalised skin-tight costumes; listening to a commentary on their backstories, special techniques and skills; trying to follow a convoluted story which tied into years of tangled continuity - I smiled knowingly. They were even talking about the imminent return of The Rock, in an event I can only assume they're calling the Phoenix Saga.

It's nice to know we're all geeks at heart. Even if some of us don't know it.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Who Watches the Zack Snyder?

"Zack Snyder to direct Star Wars film!"

I read that headline last week and my heart nearly stopped. The walls began closing in. One of my least favourite directors was to work on one of my most beloved properties. The thought made me feel physically ill.
The next day, Snyder and his agents thankfully denied all knowledge (though that itself could be a lie) and I started breathing again. But now he's on my mind, itching in the back of my brain, so I want to share my thoughts:

Snyder is a director who actually gets a lot of love, particularly among the geek community, but who I simply cannot stand. That opinion is born not from his obsessive use of speed-ramping (though that is incredibly annoying) but from his atrocious handling of one film in particular.

The rest of his films are exercises in style-over-substance, with varying degrees of success. They are all undeniably stylish, but also undeniably hollow.
Dawn of the Dead is stupid, but it knows it's stupid and plays along (zombie baby!) which at times is kind of fun. 300 is equally stupid but plays it straight, which turns out to be even more fun. Sucker Punch seems to think it isn't stupid and tries to have some kind of message - but whatever that message is meant to be gets garbled in delivery (and it gives its shock ending away before it's even started). I have to admit to not having seen Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, but it looks very stylish and (like its title) very stupid.

Which brings us to Watchmen.
For those who don't know, Watchmen is an adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel of the same name - often voted the greatest comic of all time. I'd read it when I saw the film, but I wouldn't have called myself a fan. It wasn't until I left the cinema, my blood boiling with rage and loathing, that I realised how much I did appreciate the comic! In its own way, the film convinced me I was a fan of the book.

Whenever I say I don't like Snyder's Watchmen (by which I mean I hate Snyder's Watchmen) the reaction is always the same: "But it looks just like the comic!"
Indeed, it does look like the comic. Snyder captures the look and the style of Dave Gibbons' art perfectly. But that's all he captures. Like everything else he's made, it's an abundance of style at the complete expense of substance. Watchmen looks just like the comic, but it feels completely wrong.
Not since Garth Jennings' unholy violation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has a film so totally misread the tone and messages of its source-material.

To explore this idea, we'll be delving into deep spoilers for both versions.

Before we start, let's make one thing clear: this is not about the squid. Getting rid of the squid is actually the only intelligent change the film makes. Tying the story back into Dr. Manhattan, instead of introducing this extra outside element (not to mention the weird inclusion of psychics), is definitely more concise and a neater ending for a film - not to mention that it's probably a better ending in general. I like that the squid is gone; I just don't like anything else.

Watchmen the comic shocked people, infamously so, because of the way it depicted violence. No-one had ever seen violence like this in a comic before. And Snyder seeks to replicate that shock value for a modern audience, so he ramps the violence up much higher.
What he fails to understand is that Watchmen didn't shock people because of how extreme it was (though that was certainly a factor), but rather how realistic it was. Watchmen's entire point is to ask what superheroes would be like in the real world; so, when they fight, it is real-world violence. Violence in comics had always been stylised and cartoonish ("Whack!" "Clud!" "Zonk!") and suddenly Watchmen appeared, showing actual realistic violence - that's where the shock came from. When Snyder (for example) has Silk Spectre literally kick someone's arm in half, he may be making it more extreme and shocking but he's also undermining that realism. Watchmen the film becomes an over-the-top cartoon again, which is exactly what the comic was pushing against.

The one time Snyder's extreme gore and shock-tactics are appropriate - the one time where the comic does this - is at the very end, where we see the devastation of the book's events. The final issue of the comic opens with pages and pages and pages of blood and mangled corpses. At this point, Watchmen is seeking to shock us - to show us the terrible human cost of what has occurred - so Snyder should be free to go all out. So why does he choose this one moment to discover restraint? Why is all we see a blasted cityscape with a few fires burning? Where is that final gut-punch? Where the comic sought realism, Snyder goes over-the-top; where the comic went over-the-top, Snyder shows us nothing at all!

Similarly intended to be shocking is the moment when Rorschach finally snaps. In the comic, on discovering the child-murderer, Rorschach very calmly cuffs him to a radiator and throws him a hacksaw, then sets the building on fire and says the man can either saw off his own hand or burn to death. Then he strolls outside to watch. No one comes out.
Realising that this was shocking at the time, but wouldn't be remotely shocking to a modern audience who already saw exactly that in Saw, Snyder again seeks to make it more extreme. In the film, Rorschach wordlessly attacks the man's head with a meat-cleaver again and again in a fit of rage.
One of these acts is a cold, calculated murder - the other is a crime of passion. This moment is the birth of Rorschach - this moment entirely defines his character - and the two events portray totally different people. One shows that Rorschach has made a very conscious decision to cross a line, where the other shows that he was overcome by his emotions. The first shows us an actual psychopath; the second shows us a man who lost control for a moment.
Snyder's mistake was not to change the events of the scene (there are other ways Rorschach could have killed him, and still remained chillingly detached) but to change the meaning of the scene. Snyder seems unable to see what the scene is supposed to be saying - only what it looks like and how shocking it is.
In that one moment, Snyder changes who Rorschach is, in relation to the story as well as to himself. But that's nothing compared to what he does to Ozymandias. Which brings us to the crux of the problem - the reason that Watchmen made me reject Zack Snyder so angrily.

Alan Moore's Watchmen does not have a protagonist or an antagonist. It has Rorschach - an unpleasant fascist sociopath - who stumbles upon and tries to stop a conspiracy that endangers thousands; and it has Ozymandias - a much nicer man - who is driven to do something unspeakable to (as he sees it) protect the world. It has characters doing the right thing for completely the wrong reason; it has characters doing the wrong thing for absolutely the right reason. There are no "good" or "bad" guys - there are just the characters, what they do, and whether or not you agree with them. This is what makes Watchmen great. Not the violence, not the style, but the fact it makes you think and weigh up your own values. It's written entirely in shades of grey.
Snyder's Watchmen, on the other hand, has a fairly clear protagonist in Rorschach, and a very clear antagonist in Ozymandias. Ozy is given all the depth of a pantomime villain - sneering, condescending, German - and none of his motivations ring true. Far from doing what he does to save the world, he seems to do it just because he's evil. It's so cut-and-dry that it makes me want to scream.
Snyder doesn't even hide the fact that he's the "villain". There's a point where Ozymandias is attacked by an assassin (that he himself hired) in a room full of civilians. This serves to remove the characters' (and our) suspicions from him, as the unseen bad-guys surely wouldn't try to kill him if he was involved. At least, that would be the point of the scene if Snyder hadn't instead used it to show how evil he is. In the comic Ozymandias singlehandedly tackles the gunman - risking his own life to save civilians, like the superhero he is meant to be. In the film he actually ducks behind the civilians and uses them as meat-shields. This superhero is apparently a massive coward and an uncaring bastard, if not entirely evil. Who's behind all this? wonders the audience. Could it be the guy who just got those innocent people killed?
Maybe Snyder decided to play the scene this way to demonstrate how little Ozymandias values human life, as a precursor to his killing thousands. But that's just it - that's what annoys me so much. When, at the end of the comic, he says, "I've made myself feel every death," he clearly means it. This is the one moment that we see the pain and the weight of his terrible actions. He believes he has done the right thing, but it's cost him his soul.
In the film he says the same line, but it feels like an empty platitude. He delivers it with the same lack of emotion that he gives all his other dialogue. How strange that Snyder decided to make Ozymandias detached in this emotional moment, when he made Rorschach so emotional in the scene we mentioned before. Again, he does not see the purpose of the line - he's oblivious to the depth of the character.

It may seem harsh to pin all this on Snyder, but I truly believe this is all his doing. Nothing in the script is wrong - the words and events are fine - it's in the presentation and delivery that Watchmen falls apart. It's the director who asked Ozymandias to give a Ming the Merciless performance. It's the director who shot the violence as an over-stylised cartoon. It's the director who captured the colours, lighting and angle of actual frames from the comic; and then completely undermined the narrative purpose of those frames. It's Snyder who read the comic and saw only shallow style, base shock-value, and plain black and white.
Watchmen's morality should shift and blur like Rorschach's mask (did Moore do that on purpose?) but Snyder takes it at face value. The result is a hollow, empty, worthless film - but it tucks its parts away and dances in front of the mirror wearing Watchmen's face.

Normally this would not annoy me so much. Normally I would let a poor adaptation slide by and just roll my eyes. But this film constantly makes Best Comic-Book Movie of All Time lists at position two or three. This film is more popular among fans of the comic than those who haven't read it. This film is somehow considered a good adaptation. That's why Watchmen fills me with rage - because this praise makes no sense to me!
There's more to an adaptation than mimicking how something looks. Especially something that is revered for the weighty themes at its heart. But, like all Snyder's work, he pours his attention into the style and lets the substance pass him by. As a result, Watchmen not only fails to address, but completely ignores the message of the book.
Zack Snyder got Watchmen wrong. I don't even consider that an opinion. It's a fact.

If that's how violently my body rejected Watchmen - a property I didn't actually realise I was a fan of - imagine the fallout if Snyder got his hands on Star Wars. I wonder if I'd commit clinical murder or a crime of passion? And would he even notice the difference?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Rise of the Justice League Movie

(or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Overpowered God People)

Last weekend, in a darkened cinema, I had a revelation. Rise of the Guardians achieved something I had thought impossible: it actually made me interested to see a Justice League movie!

I'm a Marvel guy. I'd state the usual Marvel guy reasons (more interesting characters, less stupid weaknesses, very few insanely powerful überheroes) but the simple truth is it's because Marvel got to me first (Spidey cartoons) and I'm not American (the "A" in "JLA" feels a little insulting). But even those aren't the reason I didn't care about the upcoming Justice League film. I didn't care because I didn't see how it could work.

Marvel had a five film build up to get to The Avengers, and Warner are skipping all that and going straight to the main event. Possibly this year's Man of Steel will lead into it, but even that's uncertain at this point. Assuming they follow the Marvel model of six characters (but even if they only have four or five) that's an awful lot of characters' backstory they'd need to cram into one film. The Avengers worked because we already knew all these characters intimately - the joy of the film is seeing characters you already love come together.
Despite what DC fans (particularly in America) seem to think, even if they might recognise the names and costumes, nobody knows your characters. They know Superman, they know Batman, but they don't know who Wonder Woman is - that's your third biggest character - they don't know the Flash, they don't know Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter is a step too far. Can you imagine how people would have reacted to Thor in The Avengers if they hadn't had an entire film to get used to the whole interstellar god thing first? That's Martian Manhunter.
Having to cram in all those backstories, maybe even origin stories, and still having it feel powerful when they all learn to work together seemed way too much for one film. I honestly didn't see it working.

Then I saw Rise of the Guardians.

The Guardians actually do resemble the JLA in a lot of ways. The most obvious connection is Sandman, the most powerful, who can will things into being from his sand. All he's missing is a ring and a terrible CG mask and he'd be Green Lantern. That seems to be the only link until, at a certain point in the movie, Jack Frost flies to Antarctica to find solitude. He doesn't have a fortress, and it's the wrong pole, but you suddenly realise that he's a flying, superpowered orphan - he's Superman! With that realisation the other Guardians fall quickly into place. Santa - the one with gadgets, a sweet ride, and slight sociopathic tendencies - is Batman. The Easter Bunny - quick, agile, projectile weapons - is Green Arrow. The Tooth Fairy, I guess, must be Hawkman (I know nothing about Hawkman).
So, in a way, someone already made a Justice League film - and it was great! I loved Rise of the Guardians!
Now I see it. Now I understand how DC can do this.

My mistake was to assume that they'd have to replicate the same central story of The Avengers - a group of myriad loners coming together as a unit. That's where all the emotion and power comes from in Marvel's film - and I still firmly believe that, if they do try to copy this, DC will fail.
What Rise of the Guardians does instead, and what I hope Justice League will go for, is to introduce us to the team as an already well-tuned machine, and centre the story around just one new character upsetting the balance and trying to find their place. Add a villain who detunes that machine, giving the newbie a chance to prove themself, et voilà! It's still an ensemble piece, but the thrills and emotion come from a different place - one character finding acceptance rather than six finding harmony.
Interestingly, this seems to be the approach Marvel are taking with Guardians of the Galaxy - having Star-Lord, a human, becoming a member of the already formed team of Guardians (it must be a Guardian thing). The first X-Men film also did something similar.
The trick is that, instead of making us care about the interplay of four-to-six distinct characters, we only need to care about two - the main character and the team. This is far more manageable if (unlike The Avengers) this film must also serve to introduce each character. Seeing the team through the eyes of the new recruit means we can skip the origins of each member, but still get a sense of who they are and how they fit together. In DC terms, this means that the backstories of the characters are free to expand upon in the long-mooted spin-off movies.

The only problem is that this does focus the spotlight on one character over the others - Jack Frost, Star-Lord, Wolverine - which is something The Avengers avoided. If Justice League follows the Guardians template then it will be impossible to avoid, so they must choose carefully.
It may have to be Superman because, unless he joins or, better yet, founds the League at the end of Man of Steel (which is as unlikely as it is awesome) then you'll have to show him joining in this film, making him the newbie by default. Lets pretend that's not an issue, though, and weigh up the rest. I'm assuming a fairly traditional lineup.
Batman is the other obvious choice - the loner dragged into teamwork, distrustful of all these ridiculously powerful beings around him - but really, hasn't that guy hogged all the limelight long enough? Something Batman has in common with some of the others is that he's human, making him an outsider, so Green Arrow or one of the other "normal" characters could work quite well. Martian Manhunter isn't normal by any stretch, but he's one of only two who have no experience of human civilisation whatsoever - the ultimate outsiders. So who's the other?

The other is Wonder Woman. Were it up to me, she's the one I'd most like to see them try and to (hopefully) pull off. There are a number of reasons for this:
First is that she is a true outsider - totally new to the modern world - and will struggle not just to find her place in the team, but in civilisation too. Lots of character moments; lots of empathy.
Second is that, of everyone, she's the one who requires the most explaining. Superman's an alien; Batman's rich; Green Lantern's got a magic ring; Flash goes pretty fast; Wonder Woman is an Amazon, a Greek, a princess, possibly an actual child of the actual gods, and has a random hodgepodge of mystical weapons and powers that don't really go together but seemed like a good idea at the time (an invisible WHAT?!). It's the Thor/Martian Manhunter situation again, but without the convenient hand-wave excuse of "because he's from space". This stuff will be a lot easier to cover if she's our main story focus.
The third and possibly most important reason is that DC/Warner have been trying to bring Wonder Woman to the screen for years, and utterly failing. In all likelihood this is probably a rediculous gender thing. They either don't know how to write or, likelier, don't know how to market a female hero. Either way, there have been several screenplays that never got off the ground - including one written by some guy called Joss Whedon (who later went on to make Black Widow the most interesting character in The Avengers) - and a TV show pilot which was outright hated by everyone who saw it.
Justice League is a back-door into this. A way to centre the film on a female superhero, without worrying about audiences not wanting to watch a film about a girl. They'll come for the Batman and the Superman, but stay for the (hopefully) strong, interesting central character journey. Taking another leaf from Rise of the Guardians, if your marketing department is really that scared of women, you don't really need to show her in trailers at all - Jack Frost barely appeared in the marketing! It's a perfect way to launch this character that they've consistantly struggled to launch.

This would be my ideal, but it's really only one example of what could be done. The point is that there is potential here, and that it's Rise of the Guardians that showed me that. DC have a chance to show they're not just chasing Marvel's heels - that they can do something new and exciting and maybe even risky. I am now actually interested to see the route they end up taking. I want them to pull it off, too. I want them to make this Marvel guy care.
Your move, Warner.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Rise of the Guardians Review

I said in my Brave review that I only managed to catch one animated film last year. I admitted that ParaNorman and Rise of the Guardians (or even Frankenweenie and Madagascar 3) might have been better. I also said that only two Dreamworks films were markedly better than Cars 2.
While the jury's still out on the first point (I won't be sure until I see them both again) I'm happy to announce that Rise of the Guardians is Dreamworks' third best film to date and definitely better than Cars 2.
It's also, at the risk of upsetting Bane, my second favourite superhero film of 2012!

The Guardians of the title are an elite team of mythological beings who come together in times of crisis to protect the children of the world. The concept comes from a book series called The Guardians of Childhood (a much better, more informative title) but where the books offered backstories for each Guardian, the film opens with the team already established and familiar with one another. Even Jack Frost - new recruit and the audience's eyes and ears through the story - is already on a first-name basis with the others.
The first-names in question are North (Father Christmas), Sandy (the Sandman), Bunny (as in Easter) and Tooth (as in Fairy). It helps that we already know these characters. It also helps that these are not the characters we know. North is a tattooed Russian heavy with a penchant for cutlasses; Bunny's a hairy, long-eared Crocodile Dundee; Tooth is more hummingbird than traditional fairy. The film has no interest in explaining any of this - these simply are the characters. Amid the current movie obsession with origins, this feels surprisingly refreshing.

Things kick off with the return of ancient enemy Pitch Black (the Bogeyman), a genuinely creepy character voiced by Jude Law, who threatens to sap children's belief in the Guardians. Belief is power here, and a myth not believed in becomes weak and intangible.
Though Pitch is a devious villain rather than a direct physical threat - straight from the Loki school of Divide and Conquer - the film is sure to prove how dangerous he is. It's not afraid to get pretty dark in places, shocking you and upping the stakes significantly.
It's not afraid to go the other way either, though, finding the sweet-spot between real darkness and a good sense of fun. There's a rooftop caper sequence which is essentially all jokes, but there are also battles and chases and massive airborne faceoffs. These range from exhilarating to silly, but are never less than enjoyable.

While nothing in the film has the sheer polish of Brave, it makes up for it with the scale and varied design that Pixar's film was lacking. The locations are vast, numerous and frequently gorgeous - North's workshop, Tooth's massive sky palace, Bunny's ancient temple, and many less fantastical places - and the action that takes place in them is no less huge. Much of the fighting takes the form of spectacular magic displays, with Jack causing explosions of ice and Sandy creating anything he needs from dream-sand. Oh, and almost everyone has their own private army. It's a big film.

Despite this scale and an often breakneck pace, the story remains tightly focused and intimate. Jack does not have the love and belief of children like the others do (modern kids haven't even heard of him) so, despite his roguish nature, he's actually quite a tragic, lonely figure. This is never overplayed or rubbed in your face, but the subtle animation and fantastic voice-work from Chris Pine make it felt just enough.
By not losing sight of this - by anchoring its spectacle in something meaningful, even in the biggest, craziest scenes - Guardians rises (sorry) above the simple mashup it could have been.
The whole film is a tight balancing act - weighing light moments against dark, traditional characters against unfamiliar weirdness, wide scope against a deeply personal story. Somehow it gets that balance just right, delivering a brilliant experience that appeals to every emotion and looks fantastic while doing it.

Sadly, despite all this, Rise of the Guardians has bombed at the box-office. I personally blame the forgettable, meaningless title (see also: John Carter). This is a real shame because if Dreamworks are determined to milk all their franchises to death (spoiler - they are) then this, more than Panda and far more than Dragon, has actual sequel potential. If they listen to the money then we may never see those sequels.
Then again, maybe we will. There's always home sales. We just have to believe.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

NerdTech's Most Interesting Film of 2012

There are three main things I learned from writing my Film of the Year series:
1 - Word processing apps on phones are brilliant. They mean I can use my spare moments to do something productive and creative, rather than just checking Facebook for the fortieth time.
2 - Don't expect constructive criticism from family. The only comment I received was, "No-one's impressed."
3 - Writing these things is fun! I really enjoyed it, and I'd really like to keep doing it. Hopefully I'll manage to review some films in the coming year, but for now I'll have to write about something from last year. But what?

As fantastic as The Avengers is, there's not much to talk about beyond heaping it with adoring praise and discussing which Hulk moment is the best. So which film of 2012 gives the best opportunity for conversation and discussion?
Is it the enjoyable but flawed John Carter (formerly of Mars)? The genre-bending exposé that is The Cabin in the Woods? The wibbly wobbly, timey wimey (totally broken) plot of Looper? Or could it be the confused and uneven The Dark Knight Rises?
Actually, the one film that I've kept mulling over and arguing about, with myself and with others, is the film that began the year as possibly my most anticipated. I've been thinking about it so much, in fact, that what follows is not a review so much as an analytical essay. I'm sorry, but I'm really into this writing thing now! Let's do this!

Prometheus - Ridley Scott

Prometheus might be the most well-made bad movie of all time.

The story, such as it is, follows Elizabeth Shaw - a scientist who, along with her archaeologist boyfriend Charlie Holloway, have found evidence that life on Earth was originally seeded by aliens they call "Engineers". With funding from the Weyland corporation, a team of experts heads out (on a ship called Prometheus) to find the planet Shaw and Holloway think is the likely source of the Engineers. Things do not go well.

The legend goes that Sir Ridley Scott originally developed this film to explore the origin of the "Space Jockey" from his horror sci-fi masterpiece, Alien. That's the big dead guy in the chair with a face like an elephant and a hole in his chest. He, as you may have guessed, is an Engineer. But, as development progressed, Scott grew less interested in the origin of the Jockey, and of the Alien, and instead began to focus on loftier themes of life, death, gods, and creation. But, because of its inception as a prequel, the script remained tangentially tied to Alien - and there the problems begin to arise.

In many ways, Alien is a B-movie. A nasty little horror film with a heroine who ends up running and screaming in her underwear. But it's a very good B-movie. The best, in fact.
Alien pulls this off by embracing exactly what it is. It knows it's a simple film appealing to simple emotions - namely fear and more fear. With no other aspirations to worry about, Alien is free to be the best damn version of that simple B-movie that it can be.

Prometheus, on the other hand, is definitely an A-movie. And it's probably the worst damn version of that A-movie it can possibly be.
Where Alien knew exactly what it was, Prometheus can't make up its mind. It has no idea what it is or what it's trying to achieve. Is it a horror film, or is it a philosophical sci-fi? Is it simple or complex? Is it intellectual or visceral? Is it plain and obvious or mysterious and withholding? Does it want answers or not? Answers to Alien's questions or its own unrelated ones?
Is it a prequel? Even that simple question is one Scott refused to conclusively answer before release. When you see the film you realise this is because he doesn't know. The film itself doesn't know!

Prometheus wants to answer each of these questions with "both". It always tries to service both camps and, as a result, the actual answer is "neither". Scary bits do happen, but because they don't have anything to do with the central questions of life and creation they are promptly dropped and forgotten about. Likewise deep meaningful questions are asked, but before the film can explore them in any detail they are abandoned in favour of running around and screaming.
This schizophrenic nature of Prometheus results in the feel of a series of sketches. It's as though the individual scenes have been included because of how well they work on their own, without looking at their effect on the overall story. Sometimes films are constructed this way - with setpieces written first and the story built around them - but here the story has been vaguely draped across the individual sequences, with little to no attempt to integrate them effectively.

However, if Prometheus is a sketch-show, it is an incredibly well-made one. Each individual sketch is a lovingly made piece of art. The cinematography is absolutely stunning. Set design, gorgeous. The actors are actually very good in each given moment - filling their scenes with emotion and power (though we'll come to their overall performances later). The atmosphere of each scene is heavy and immersive, sucking you deep into the moment. Sir Ridley's direction is great and his composition even better, filling the frame with strong visuals and finding beauty in even the nastiest moments. The film was shot in true 3D and Scott naturally knows what to do with it - it adds texture and depth to the shot, but never distracts.
When the film is playing horror, everything on screen comes together to create something horrific. When it's playing tension, it's claustrophobic and fearful. When it's going for grand and philosophical, it becomes huge and powerful and inspires a sense of awe. The individual sketches are better in places than entire films that reach for the same results.
Prometheus is probably, with apologies to The Hobbit, the best looking and best made film I saw in 2012. It really is a gorgeous piece of work, so far as each individual scene is concerned. The problems only arise when looked at as a whole.

The fact that it is so well-made essentially serves to hide the problems. A film so pretty, so clearly high-quality, cannot possibly have a script as incompetent as this one seems. A film this good must surely be clever. It certainly thinks it is, and acts as though it is, so there must be more to it. And so theories and lengthy extrapolations crop up on the internet seeking to explain the confusion. I, like many others, somehow convinced myself that it must have been good, and that seeing it again would clear up my niggling doubts. I just needed to think about it longer.
This is the usual line from Prometheus' defenders, too. There's nothing wrong with the film not explaining everything, they say, and those who don't like it are at fault for wanting it all spelled out. It's open to interpretation - just think about it longer.
Thinking about it more may help you come to conclusions about the "big questions", but it will never help you to explain why this scene followed that unrelated scene, why these characters did this thing after learning that contradictory thing, or why people's motivations literally U-turn from moment to moment. In focusing on unanswered questions the defenders overlook that the well-constructed sequences which contain those questions are held in place with chewing-gum and rusty paperclips.

Lets go back to Alien for a second. Think on John Hurt's ultimate fate - the Chestburster scene. Think how that event changes everything about the film from that point on. The film becomes a different thing entirely, for both the characters and the audience.
Now imagine that it had happened to Hurt alone, in his bunk perhaps, and that somehow (work with me here) he survived. Imagine that Hurt stumbled - wild eyes, covered in blood - into the room where the others were gathered. They look up in shock and, rather than warn them of the thing on the ship, rather than tell them about what surely must be the worst ordeal of his life, he just says something vague like, "This planet is bad!"
This is what happens in Prometheus. The scene is a clear analogue to the infamous chestburst, and the aftermath essentially plays out exactly as above. But wait, it gets better!
The crew, faced with this man who is covered in blood and possibly raving, just turn back to what they were doing without a word. Then one casually says, "We're going back down to the planet. Wanna come?"
And John Hurt, seconds after saying how the planet is bad, minutes after a monster literally crawled out from inside him, replies, "Yeah, ok."

This is what I mean when I say the scenes are essentially sketches. The chestburst-alike is the best sketch in the film. That sequence is tense, claustrophobic, nailbiting and immediate. But the connective tissue tying it to the next sketch (returning to the planet - notably a "big question" moment) is utter nonsense. As a way of effectively leading one scene into another the scenario above is impossibly stupid. Yet the whole film is made up of moments like this.
The scene is connected so weakly, in fact, that other than one specific moment later in the film it has no effect on the narrative at all. In terms of immediate impact it matches its Alien equivalent. In terms of lasting story impact it does no such thing.

The real casualty of the scene above, and others like it, is not actually the plot. The plot suffers - it suffers a lot - but it might have been salvageable were it not for the damage to the characters. Looking at the scene again, it's clear that Hurt is not acting like a human being. The other characters perhaps even less so. They are acting as the plot requires to get them into position - consistent characterisation be damned!
But of course, it's not actually John Hurt. In Alien he was the ship's officer - intelligent, sure, but by no means a genius. In Prometheus, the character in this scene is a scientist. Most of the characters are scientists and, we can assume, they're the best scientists that the Weyland corporation can afford. It's an important mission - they wouldn't have sent amateurs. Yet, in order to get them into position for the next sketch, whatever that may be, the script constantly has them act like amateurs. Worse, in fact - these characters are frequently outright stupid. They are terrible scientists.

The first obvious blunder is that, upon learning that the atmosphere within an alien structure is breathable, they waste no time taking off their helmets. "Breathable" is not the same as "safe", people! So there's oxygen - there could also be all kinds of bugs and microbes in there. Maybe you scanned for that sort of thing, but this is an alien planet - you'd have no idea what you were looking for! That might seem a minor error, and it kind of is, but it opens the floodgates.

Mild spoilers follow.

Within no time, the one biologist on the crew - the guy brought specifically to examine lifeforms - sees an alien corpse, finds it too creepy and immediately wants to go back to the ship. The guy should be freaking out with excitement, if anything, but instead he wants to leave. And they let him. They actually perform an autopsy on this corpse later and the crew's expert biologist isn't present!
The geologist is (far more forgivably) creeped out too, and goes with him. Then they both get lost.
Most people point out at this point that the geologist is the guy who made the map. That's silly. The geologist simply started up the automated map-making process. He doesn't have a copy of that map - it's being created holographically back at basecamp. The same basecamp that is tracking all of the away-team within that map, monitoring their lifesigns, and in constant radio-contact. Yet somehow they get lost.
You've probably guessed what happens to these two morons. You guessed it because the only reason they would act so stupid and against their actual roles is if the script needed to isolate them for some reason. It doesn't care how or why or if it makes sense - just get these two alone for the next horror sketch.
So, naturally, these two end up trapped in the structure that night. Their first move is to head back to the room with the alien corpse they were both so desperate to get away from. Which makes a certain kind of sense, but isn't really in character. What's totally against character, though, is how the biologist reacts when faced with a live alien specimen. Where the corpse freaked him out, the very alive, hissing, snake-thing makes him go all goo-goo-eyed and want to stroke it. This would be stupid anyway, but given his jumpy, fearful nature earlier it makes no sense at all.
When those two die, as they were clearly always going to, no-one knows it. This is because the guy on watch at basecamp - the one with radio-contact, location-tracking and, most importantly, lifesign displays - is off having sex. That sounds as dumb as it is and it's never mentioned again. It's just an easy (stupid) way to get him out of the room.
That same night (this is the last one I'll list, because it's my favourite) Holloway, Shaw's archaeologist boyfriend, gets very depressed and very drunk. Why? He just had all his theories validated; he discovered an alien civilisation; he found what is likely the cradle of human existance; he should be drinking champagne! So why is he drinking whiskey? And why is he drinking it alone?
Holloway is sad because the aliens are all dead. Specifically because he can't talk to them - can't ask them those big questions. Ignoring the fact that they only looked for a couple of hours in one area of one structure in one valley of this planet, HE'S AN ARCHAEOLOGIST! Dead civilisations are what he does! They are his thing! If he's depressed, after discovering everything they have on just their first day, about Engineer history and about our own, then he is the worst archaeologist in the history of the universe!
It makes him look like a whiny, self-entitled arsehole. Remember, this is our secondary protagonist I'm talking about. This is not good characterisation. Like everything listed here, his actions are dictated by the things they need to set up. Later on he does something pretty selfless, which clashes with the spoilt, selfish brat he's established to be in this scene. Not in a "he learnt his lesson and changed" kind of way, either, just that he's now a different character entirely because the script doesn't actually care.

Spoilers end.

Because the script doesn't care, neither do we. There's no characters to care for - just actors who appear in sketches as different characters. Even Shaw and company representative Meredith Vickers, the only two who remain consistent from scene to scene, aren't so much characters as lists of attributes. Very short lists of attributes (they are "a bit religious" and "corporate ice-queen" respectively). Neither of them have an arc, and both end the movie in the same place, character-wise, that they began.
The only character getting any critical attention (from both critics and audiences) is Michael Fassbender's portrayal of David, the ship's android. He plays the part fantastically, with an understated menace. I agree that it's a great performance but, at the script level, David is no different to any other player in the sketch-show. He does whatever the scene requires to set up the next scene, with no clear motivation driving him to do it. But because Alien taught us that androids are devious schemers with ulterior motives, and because Fassbender wisely plays into that, David escapes the terrible characterisation of everyone else. The script doesn't make the android interesting - it's Fassbender that elevates him beyond the script.

This is true of the entire film. Anything that works works in spite of the script, not because of it. It feels like a first draft. All the important story beats are present; all the setpiece moments (or sketches) are in place; the characters are beginning to come into their own; the themes are beginning to rise to the surface. But it's not fully formed - it needs a few more passes.
The ridiculous part being, of course, that an early draft has since surfaced (entitled Alien: Engineers) which is less ambitious but so much more complete and polished than this one.

Prometheus is a mess. It does the vast majority of things perfectly - Ridley Scott certainly knows how to make a stunning film - but it gets a few core things monumentally wrong. The script undermines everything the film does right. It's very pretty, has strong performances, is atmospheric and paced well (it's certainly never dull), but none of that matters if the characters' choices never make a lick of sense.
It's a bad film; it's just a phenomenally well made one.

That's the end of this extended review-cum-essay, but I could easily have written more.
For one thing, I described the bad scientists but I never mentioned the bad science. The Engineers' DNA is apparently a 100% match with humans, for instance. These are nine-foot-tall hairless blue aliens we're talking about. And a match with which humans specifically? My DNA isn't even a 100% match with my immediate family!
Oh, and I didn't mention that line. The great "twist" from Vickers that is so obvious, yet treated as so revelatory, that it had me howling with laughter.
There's also my own theory, which I think explains everything.
Yes, I could write a lot more about Prometheus. This crazy contradiction of a movie is such a fertile topic. The story contains a number of "big questions" worth a conversation on their own, but the biggest question is how such a well-crafted, beautiful film reached the screen with such a painfully inadequate script. I've had and will continue to have discussions and arguments about almost every aspect of the film, making Prometheus my Most Interesting Film of 2012.