Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014)

future-shock-pat-mills

2016.30: Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (TV, Film Four)

Now this is brilliant. It’s a documentary about the creation and history of the great British sci-fi anthology comic 2000AD. Basically a talking heads piece in which the comics editors and the creators of the strips reminisce about the making of the comic and its ensuing history, full of entertaining commentary and sometimes acidic rants (God bless you, Pat Mills, I owe you my childhood). With a punk-rock, anti-establishment attitude fostered in the dark dismal mid-seventies and Thatcher’s Britain,  the comic was an incredible culture shock for impressionable young kids like me and incredibly exciting. It certainly lived up to its reputation as The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.

I read the comic from its very first issue up to, oh, the late-eighties, so it was a real joy to see the heroes of my childhood- and yes, these guys were my heroes. Not the strips themselves, it was the  guys in the little credit-box that were my heroes. Guys like Pat Mills and John Wagner and Kevin O’Neill and Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons and Carlos Ezquerra (bless him, I cannot understand a word of what Carlos says in his segments). To see them all now as middle-aged men looking back at those heady days of being young firebrands ripping apart the rulebook of British comics is fantastic. There’s a few notable absentees, like Ian Gibson, and yes I guess no-one would expect Alan Moore to show his face, and sadly he doesn’t. That man Moore is a genius who really should give his fans the Halo Jones saga we’ve been waiting for, but I’m afraid he’s not interested, so Neil Gaiman’s tease about Moore once telling him all the untold Halo Jones stories he had planned was almost painful to watch. Its just one of the many fascinating highlights.

Running nearly two hours, this thing could have been three hours long and it wouldn’t have bored me at all (indeed, film-makers, I want the three-hour director’s cut!). Its almost like a chat in the pub with the coolest dudes ever. These guys lit up my childhood and later saved Marvel and DC comics when the Americans pulled them across the pond to make Watchmen and so many other strips. That exodus of talent is related in the doc, and the resultant problems on the comic that nearly sank it (it’s no coincidence that I stopped reading the comic during this troubling period). There’s the inevitable discussion of creator rights and some horror stories of what happened to some of the gorgeous original artwork. There’s also a look at the two Judge Dredd movies and the influence of 2000AD strips on films and culture in general. The doc brings things up to the present day with the comic on a surer footing.

Still, it’s those early days that live loud and bright in my memory. Me and my mate Andy to this day can sit together and chat about the old strips we used to love- Robo Hunter, Dredd’s Apocalypse War, Nemesis the Warlock, so many others. Reading that comic back then was like a rite of passage. Sometimes I pick up a current copy in a newsagent and flick through it- it looks interesting but I haven’t bought 2000AD in awhile. I had a spell buying it again a few years ago, but I mostly buy collected editions these days. It doesn’t feel like my old 2000AD to be honest, the early stuff was fairly brutal and raw and yes, mostly black and white on cheap paper. The current comic is on better paper, mostly colour, the strips look slick but it feels… well, I’ll no doubt buy it again in future but it isn’t really the 2000AD of my childhood. That was a long time ago, after all.

But this documentary is fantastic stuff. I honestly think it’d be rewarding even for those unfamiliar with the original comic. There’s really a very human story behind the comic and the times that created it, the sensibilities behind it. 2000AD could only have come out of Britain, and its cultural impact would surprise many who aren’t at all familiar with it. For those of us on whom it had such an impact, hell, this doc is brilliant. These guys are heroes.

Childhood’s End (2015)

child12016.29: Childhood’s End (TV, 3-part miniseries)

Childhood’s End is based on one of those Arthur C Clarke classic works of science fiction that I have intended to read for many years but never gotten around to. While I’m still waiting for Hollywood to make Rendezvous With Rama, this miniseries at the very least offered me a chance to find out what this Arthur C Clarke novel was about.

Incredibly, the novel dates back to 1953. I’ve read that Childhood’s End was the novel Stanley Kubrick originally intended to make in the 1960s but couldn’t get the rights, so instead he and Clarke ended up making 2001: A Space Odyssey instead. I don’t know if that story is true, it’s just something I seem to recall reading once, but it’s certainly possible, as Childhood’s End shares many themes with 2001, particularly the impact of alien civilizations on humanity and our place and future in the universe. In 2001, we go to the aliens, in Childhood’s End, they come to us, and in both cases the results are largely the same – strange and wonderful and scary, leaving humanity changed. While the series is by no means perfect, it certainly leaves you with plenty to think about.

My wife was actually quite taken aback with how grim and dark Childhood’s End ultimately proves. I won’t go into spoiler territory as there’s plenty to enjoy going into this series not knowing where it’s going- indeed it is refreshing to see something sci-fi that’s not quite as obvious as most summer blockbusters. There certainly is the feel of (albeit superior) sci-fi like Quatermass about this production, something darker and more ‘honest’ than the cosy kind of sci-fi we usually see. The last hour lingers in your head afterwards.

However, while it certainly seems earnest in its drive to be honest to the original book, the show does seem to falter. For instance, I cannot imagine Clarke’s book being encumbered by some of the romantic dramatics saddled on the series. A lot of the show’s problems are emblematic of a tv show trying to appeal to the masses, particularly caused by its lack of imagination regards casting.

I know I’ve gone on about this kind of thing before, but the leads are just too, well ‘perfect’ and prove as far-fetched as anything in Clarke’s star-spanning plot. Mike Vogel, an actor I’m unfamiliar with, is ok in the lead but he’s just, well, too handsome. While I’m endeavouring to stay spoiler-free, there is a period in the series when Vogel’s character is terminally ill and he still looks great- he doesn’t lose any weight, or any hair, or even his designer stubble, and while he’s haunted by the memory of his gorgeous ex-wife his current flame is pretty dazzling too. The guy has it all, so much so that any drama tends to dissipate. Forgetting the tiresome inevitability that it’s an American who is selected as The Chosen One by the Overlord Aliens who seek a human mediator, its inferred he’s just an ‘Everyman,’ and Vogel doesn’t look like an ‘Everyman’ to me, he looks like a very handsome Hollywood actor. It doesn’t feel real- it’s some kind of Ideal that, well, is a pet hate of mine that diminishes the project.

child2Fortunately while some of the ways it is executed seems uninspired and formulaic, the ideas behind the original story still shine through. It really is High Concept science fiction. The format (three parts, each running two-hours with commercials) seemed to give the production time to breathe and it certainly seemed to be ambitious visually, but it lacks a sense of ‘voice’ or identity.

It tends to look very pedestrian, uninspired- it’s competent enough, certainly, but it lacks an edge. Its as if the series needed a bold director with a clear vision of his own, for while it tells its story fairly well it nonetheless looks and feels very generic- very mainstream when it should have felt, more, well, ‘Quatermass’. It needed a thread of, well, terror through it, frankly- even though the Overlords start a new Golden Age and everything looks fine it should have felt wrong from the start. But maybe that’s just me. Childhoods End is certainly worth watching, particularly for those unfamiliar with the book, but I do have the final impression it isn’t as good as the novel really deserves.

 

The Last Stand (2013)

lstand2016.28: The Last Stand (Network Airing, HD)

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to Hollywood following years spent in politics pretty much began with this low-key action movie which I’ve only just caught up with. This choice of movie was a pretty shrewd move on Arnie’s part- the years of him being the worlds biggest box-office draw were long gone, and he’d no longer be easily linked to old friends like James Cameron in Triple-A blockbusters. So a return to what he always did best- formulaic action films that have limited demand on his acting- was an easy path to take and this film seems pretty much designed for him. Testing the waters to see if he’d still got a film career ahead of him.

Its fun, it’s simple, and it’s surprisingly entertaining- featuring a bunch of likeable good guys and some pretty obvious bad guys, it features a fairly routine plot that isn’t challenging but does reward time spent watching it. The story concerns a Mexican drug-trafficker,  Gabriel Cortez, on the run from the FBI in Vegas, racing towards the border in a supercar and aided in his bid for freedom by hired thugs with lots of guns. His route to escape over the border has him headed to the border town of Sommerton, a sleepy backwater place where only Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) and his bunch of misfit deputies stand in the way of Cortez and his army of thugs.

Much is made of Sheriff Owen’s age during the film, and coupled with remarks towards his previous exploits in the Big City they are obvious nods to Arnold’s own age and glittering career. All Owens wants now though is the Quiet LIfe and Cortez and his thugs shatter that completely, forcing the reluctant Sheriff to step up to the plate one last time. Essentially The Last Stand is a Western, one transposed to the present day. Owens is warned that Cortez is on the way and then waits for the inevitable showdown just like so many Hollywood Sheriffs have in the past. Bad guys ride into town in trucks and cars instead of horses and the gun quota is racked up a few notches but the genre conventions like the Sheriff deputising civilians to try save the town are welcome reminders of Western films from the fifties. The film even features the genius cameo of Harry Dean Stanton as a farmer, and I got to admit, the film had me won over soon as Harry showed up.

The easy-going, traditional feel of the film is somewhat at odds with some of the very extreme violence of some of the action set-pieces that clearly sets it as a modern film, but it closes with an old-fashioned fist fight between Owens and Cortez that is pure old-style Western and all the better for it. In the old days, tagging Arnie against a foe not equal to his muscular frame was always like a bad joke but with his age in the mix you really feel its a more realistic/threatening match-up.

It’s not a great film but it is an oddly comforting one. There is something great about having Arnold back in starring roles in simple action movies just doing what he does best. It’s a reminder of better, bigger glories, yes, but there is plenty of entertainment to be had here and the whole thing works very well.

 

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

bvs1.jpg2016. 27: Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (Cinema)

I have to keep reminding myself; its ‘just’ a superhero movie. The whole genre is daft, isn’t it? You get grown guys dressed up in silly costumes and a genre increasingly taking itself far too seriously and you wind up with films like Man of Steel and BvS. Talented guys like Zack Snyder give too much credit to the passions of geeks and nerds and teenage comics readers and we get misguided films like this that believe that comicstrips can be like Shakespeare or something. Weighed down by self-importance and juvenile politicising and scripts that cover up massive plot-holes with CGI bombast until that very CGI bombast becomes the be-all and end-all of everything.

Sod it. Let’s start again. My favourite superhero film is Superman: The Movie. It’s a classic lesson in how to treat a comicbook with respect without taking itself too seriously. Its a fine line, I admit, but there is a limit to how seriously this stuff should be taken. Guys in tights, you know?

Another thing about Superman: The Movie. It’s kind of aged, because, well, it has– it was made in the ‘seventies. It dates back to photochemical effects and miniatures and is pre-CGI. But it still shines today because Christopher Reeve was genius casting and it’s him who makes you believe a man can fly. You love his Clark Kent, admire his Superman. You don’t have to lay waste to Metropolis and slaughter thousands of innocents to make the film exciting. Superman cares about burglaries and cats in trees and planes falling out of the sky. He’s a good guy. That’s all we need to know.

You see, Superman: The Movie wasn’t made by geeks for geeks. It was made by ordinary grown-ups for family audiences. There was a grounding of reality about everything. My question is, are the geeks ruining films? Have they inherited Hollywood and usurped the old storytellers?

bvs4Because here we have BvS. It says everything about where the genre has gone over the decades. We first had Superman: The Movie, we later had Batman. Now we have Batman vs Superman and its about as intellectually stimulating as the title suggests. I mean, that whole ‘Martha’ thing. How stupid do these film-makers think we are? And the first time Supes meets Batman, Batman is clearly chasing bazooka-wielding bad guys, but Supes gives them a pass in order to bust open the Batmobile and tell Bats off. And what exactly was Lex’s superplan to rule the world with Doomsday? How the hell was he expecting to control Doomsday once it had killed Bats and Supes? And Supes can hear/see Lois in trouble wherever she is, but can’t hear/see a bomb hidden in a wheelchair right in front of him. He can travel faster than a bullet but can’t get that bomb out of the building just as it detonates. Did Snyder learn nothing from reading/making Watchmen?

It’s a big mess of a film. It doesn’t have one protagonist, it has two. Or three. Or four, depending on who we count. It doesn’t have one plot. It has two or three spread across separate timelines, some of which may be dreams or visions or mis-remembered memories or clips from future films. Again, did Snyder learn nothing from reading/making Watchmen?

My first thoughts walking out of BvS? That it wasn’t as bad as the reviews made out. That I sort-of quite enjoyed it (whilst knowing that I really shouldn’t have though).

There doesn’t seem much point reviewing this film. Its already become an ‘event’, perhaps even more so than Disney’s relaunch of Star Wars. Suffering a delayed release and endless marketing and leaks (the trailers simply revealing – and promising- far too much) it seems evident that even during production the film was being retconned into less just a single film but more a launchpad for a whole series of other films, subjecting it to a tension that clearly always threatens to rip it apart and undermine the whole enterprise.

The Corporate stakes are huge: Warners and DC need the film to launch a film franchise to counter Marvel’s huge series of films after the faltering Superman Returns and Man Of Steel reboots and they also need it to work on its own and recoup its huge (anything from $250 to $400 million) production costs. Maybe even impress both the critics and the fanboys while it’s at it too. Well, good luck with that.

A better film had the line, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long and it’s never truer than regards BvS. It burned so very, very brightly – subjected to largely vicious reviews from the press, fanboys themselves were largely split on the films merits with huge emotional debates becoming angry and personal online (fueled by some predictable Marvel vs DC nonsense too). The box-office has been initially amazing; contrary to those reviews, the film managed a huge opening weekend but was subjected to a corresponding massive drop-off by the second week (some outlets already quoting an 80% drop-off, even the most conservative estimating a fairly damning 70% drop). The film was scarcely in cinemas when release dates for an extended cut were being mentioned for as early as July and attention turning towards that as if the cinema release was already done and over.

As I’m writing this, the film was released little over a week ago, and already it almost feels all over. Everything has been said. Its almost scary. How much has been discussed and dissected on forums and on Youtube and media outlets? Its almost boring already, and the film has only been out just over a week. What on Earth is the Cultural half-life of a Hollywood blockbuster now? Or the timeline of its box-office: days? Weeks? A month? How much money has been spent on making and publicising this film, how much spent on distribution and marketing, how much spent by filmgoers, casual and otherwise (I know of one guy at work who has seen the film three times already), how much has been spent on merchandising and how much spent preparing for its home video release?

I have the feeling that we need a year or two to go by before we can really judge this film and even then we have to have some frame of reference to go by. By which criteria does someone judge it anyway? Do we judge it on its own artistic merits, or on how well it ultimately performs at the box office and more importantly how that impacts the succeeding DC movies? We have Suicide Squad this summer and the Wonder Woman film being shot right now. There are already rumours of reshoots for Suicide Squad, how long before reactions to BvS affect the making of Wonder Woman? Its like BvS isn’t just a film anymore- maybe it was never ‘just’ a film, and thats the root of all its issues.

So anyway, here’s my take, for what it’s worth.

bvs21) Ben Affleck. The best Batman ever? I really think he might be. His haunted Bruce Wayne is borderline psychotic and he absolutely nails the Batman. He looks pretty definitive in my book with a huge physical presence. He just deserved a better film. No, he deserved his own movie.  Which leads me to-

2) There’s much more Dark Knight Returns in BvS than I had expected. I have two differing thoughts on this. On the one hand, had Synder really wanted to just make Dark Knight Returns then maybe he just should have, and dropped all the Man of Steel tie-in stuff altogether (and certainly all that Justice League worldbuilding too). On the other hand, there’s more to the Batman than Frank bloody Miller, and it’s past time film-makers managed to shake the curse/weight/inspiration/shadow of DKR from the character. It shaped/handicapped the Chris Nolan trilogy and clearly inspired so much of BvS but surely its done now. Besides, DKR isn’t even canon. DC has always said it exists in some alternate universe away from the ‘proper’ character.

(There’s even a very fine animated movie of DKR that does the story well so a live-action version is surely already redundant but… I have the horrible feeling that, even with so much of it featuring in BvS, we will one day see a ‘proper’ live-action complete film version of DKR someday in the future. Maybe it’ll be ten, twenty, even thirty years from now, whenever it happens, it’ll happen. They just can’t leave the bloody thing alone).

3) Henry Cavill is awfully bland. I don’t blame Cavill for this, I’ve seen him much better in other stuff- in his defense, its the depiction of Superman in these films that is still pretty bland and boring. He was ill-served by Man of Steel and is just as ill-served here, maybe more so. Zack Snyder seems to have confused Superman with his Watchmen film’s Dr Manhattan. Superman is not Dr Manhattan- someone should tell Snyder that. But BvS continues to ask the same questions as MoS and it’s getting just as mired in them; we don’t trust our leaders, as they evidently prove corruptible and weak, so if there was a Superman, how could we trust him?  It’s pointless really because after two films it still doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. One thing I was curious of- there is plenty of questions in BvS about Superman, but all the public/police/politicians etc seem okay with that Batdude terrorising Gotham. What gives?

3). BvS is a much better film than Man of Steel, and yet Snyder still makes some of the same mistakes. Snyder seems to confuse drama with noise, visual as well as aural. Man of Steel did not need to blight MOS’ Kryptonian prologue with a huge sky battle/CGI shitfest. It did not add any gravitas or drama to it. Neither did it need the Planet-killer sequence or Metropolis laid waste. Battering audiences over the head with cartoon CGI theatrics does not add dramatic involvement or excitement. MoS would have been more interesting had it just comprised of Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent  wandering the planet trying to find his place in the world and hiding his powers while helping save people. It could have left donning the Superman suit until the end, made it the film’s climax. BvS addresses some of the fundamental excess of MOS’ ill-thought Metropolis battle in a novel way by forming its plot around its aftermath and justification, and yet forgets its own lessons by falling back into another CGI shitfest in the battle with Doomsday. Its almost boring. No, it is boring. Context is thrown out of the window with CGI characters and CGI explosions and… yawn.

bvs3 4) About boring- too many heroes equals too much CGI nonsense and it’s just too bloody boring for words. The most dramatic moments in the entire series of Star Wars films are those between Luke and Vader in TESB. Two combatants in a fight that is dramatic and involving and personal and weighted by a sense of reality. You don’t have Luke jumping across huge chasms or Vader firing lightning from his fingers. Just two dudes sword fighting with laser swords (the laser swords is conceit enough, the drama is in the conflict, the opposing characters and their ideologies).

Each successive superhero film seems to be throwing ever-bigger odds against an increasing roster of protagonists and, well, Age of Ultron was boring as shit. That whole finale with hundreds of little Ultrons attacking our band of merry superhumans in slo-mo was utterly boring.  Its the big danger facing superhero films today- they are getting too big, becoming too much like video-games. Future Justice League films seem hellbent on continuing this trend. Each of these films seem to think bigger is better and the idea of Snyder having a roster of several heroes battling some bad guy even bigger than Doomsday fills me with dread, frankly. But I do worry how far this genre can go before making things utterly abstract and the stakes utterly redundant.

5) Oh thats quite a bloody ’nuff about BvS. Two thousand words and I haven’t mentioned Supes meeting the ghost of his dad on a mountain for a chat about causality. Here’s hoping that the Ultimate Cut fixes everything. And maybe that somebody somewhere in Hollywood starts to exercise some kind of restraint with these superhero movies eventually.