Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Comic Review - Daytripper

An unusual comic outing today: in Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon's Daytripper there is not one hint nor hair of superheroes. Instead, the Brazilian twins capably illustrate just how much more there is to do with the medium. This is slow and gentle, a contemplation on life and death where not much really happens, yet the world is still at stake. Or, rather, Bras' world is at stake.

Bras, our protagonist, is an obituary writer. Every day he has to condence a person's and the memories they leave behind life into a few sparse paragraphs. This is our central metaphor, and the device which keeps the work trundling onwards, asking us which moment will define the rest of Bras' life. There is little here beyond vague musings and mundane dramas and everytime I put the comic down I was not particularly compelled to pick it up again. Nonetheless, this is a very worthy read. It's not something to suck you in with its fast pace or tension, and rating it as such would be doing it a great disservice.

The art is really the hero here. Both of the brothers share the writing and art duties, but there is no inconsistency to be found. Their pictures say far more than the words do, successfully utilising the medium to it's fullest potential. There is an engaging simplicity to the art, a lack of pretention that humanises the characters and issues being explored.

This lack of pretention, this simplicity, is what really won me over. Although this comic looks at big, important issues, it cares more about the characters than making statements. It wasn't written with the pretense that it'd "change your life" or any such artsiness. This wants to share with you an intimate portrait of a man and ask questions of his life. It's a character study, fundamentally, and a very easy and engaging one. Don't come with expectations, just accept the comic as it is, and this is a very worthy read.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Some notes on symbolism and the literal minded

So I enjoy wasting oodles of time on an internet site named That Guy with the Glasses - it's filled with reviews and videos of people making fun of Z-list movies. It's an engaging and easy way to lose plenty of hours. One of my favourites is Linkara, whom I like as much for the way he covers important DC events and comics, thus I often learn quite a lot about comics from his videos. As a medium, it certainly has it's fair share of rubbish to make fun of too.

But there's something of a problem with his critique of storytelling - he's very much a literalist, and, as such, has shown a rather grating habit of nitpicking things he doesn't understand. Recently he reviewed Rise of Arsenal, and this is a bad comic. Coming out of the much maligned Cry for Justice, I'd read numerous things about the comic before I watched the reviews. Not the actual source material though. Whilst watching, however, I could not help but feeling bugged at how off the mark Linkara seemed to be in much of his criticism.

If you can't be bothered watching the reviews, then let me summarise the comic: Arsenal is a bow wielding superhero who, in a recent event, lost his arm and his daughter. He was a single parent and used to have a drug problem, and this miniseries shows him falling back into drugs and failing to cope with his daughter's death. It's not handled very well, and despite the very sympathetic situation, the writing and execution of his breakdown shows him in a very narcissistic and petty manner, reducing his very powerful pain to rather less than it deserves.

This series is full of symbolism, some of it rather blatant and ham-fisted, but at times genuinely hitting a good moment. At one point he's practising archery with his new robotic arm, and as he fails he stares accusingly at his new arm. Linkara happily points out the thing wrong with his technique would most likely be his flesh arm as that was the one doing the aiming. Here, we have what is known as "fundamentally missing the point". Arsenal lost his arm to the same supervillain who was responsible for his daughter's death, and thus they are linked. He isn't shooting well because of his troubled mind, and the arm is a big reminder that some part of him is missing, cut off in a more metaphorical sense, and his inability to shoot is because of his own perceived inability to save his daughter. He looks at the arm because it's a metaphor, and a damn good one at that.

Another thing later picked up on is the way that visions appear to him. A literal explanation, as Linkara assumes, is that these are hallucinations that he really is seeing. Once again, I'm pretty sure they aren't: often in media, we see people's inner struggles represented in an external manner. Arsenal may be seeing his old drug dealer or dead daughter, but really this is a narrative way of representing the what he is feeling inside. His dead daughter is his guilt and a need for vengeance, and represents how his misery is twisting his memories of his daughter into something negative and destructive. The drug dealer represents his wish to turn to that darker and simpler time, when he did not worry about such things.

Not that I'm saying these things cannot be criticised. Certainly, they are cliched and inelegant and lend an inevitability which tries too hard to evoke tragedy. However, criticising the literal problems with having hallucinations appear is missing the point - these aren't meant to be things he's really seeing.

At the end Arsenal locks his vision of his dead daughter in his house and burns it to the ground. Linkara questions why the ghostly daughter can't just float through the walls of the house, and makes me want to hit my head off of something hard. This moment represents Arsenal's choice about how to deal with the death of his daughter: tearing down her memory and the life he lead with her. He rejects who she used to be and his memories of her, because he can't bear to be in a world where she's dead. Far better to live in a world where she never existed.

It's likely I've made this comic sound better than it actually is. So, in order to remedy this, I offer you up a picture from the comic:

It is indeed a man cradling a dead cat, who he thinks is his daughter. Try and take it seriously. Go on.

But, really, I'm getting at a wider point here. In both writing and critiquing fiction, it's best to remember that nothing, and I mean nothing, is the same thing as it is in real life. In fiction, we see a representative idea, an interpretive concept. A lot of writers try to make these concepts as closely evocative as they can to reality, to deepen the connection we have to the narrative and give the story the appearance of substance.

I don't think such measures do actually lead to more substantive stories or help us engage with the stories, but each to their own and all that. Good storytellers know that people are seeing representations of events and characters, and can manipulate things so that they tell a story with more depth through symbols and metaphors and underlying connotations. Good storytellers also make it clear that these are symbols, so that it doesn't come across as contrived or alienate people whose minds don't work along the same path as theirs. When being critical about narrative, this is a pretty fundamental point.

Linkara is entitled to his opinion, of course, just as I'm entitled to point out that his opinion is based misunderstanding. I don't mean to rail against him as a person, as he comes across as both pleasant and charismatic, or even his intelligence, as he makes a concerted attempt to break down and analyse the things he reads and offer insights into them. Rather, I feel these two videos are a good showcase of the pitfalls with being too literal minded in an approach to fiction.

Films I should try and get some sort of full review out for

Recently I've watched a few films, and in case I don't get around to giving them a proper look over, here's a few mini revs:
  • Sunshine - Startling pretty, this is a great movie. There is a tonal shift towards the end that did not bother me, but I can imagine others finding it jarring.
  • The Wrestler - Surprisingly simple and unpretentious, The Wrestler is a character study that somehow avoids cliche.
  • Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon - A movie for manchildren, full of hyperbolic stupidity and ridiculous setpieces. For myself, I had a good time.
  • Primer - An incredibly complex film, admittedly made worse by the director's intent to pack so much implicit information into each scene. It's an interesting flick, one that never outstays it's welcome or patronises you.
  • Mortal Kombat - Terrible, but damn did I have fun with it. Worth watching, if only for Christopher Lambert's perplexing sarcastic Raiden.
  • American Psycho - Very good. Great direction, blistering performance by Bale (who I don't like as an actor), very funny, very dark.
  • Hellraiser - Confused mishmash of cool concepts and jarring ones. A movie that can't quite decide what it wants to be, not even having the protagonist be the protagonist until halfway through the movie.
  • Milk - An engaging biopic that is well acted and has a great message. Just a pity I don't like biopics, especially ones so obviously messaged as this.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Avatar: The Last Airbender quiz thing

A fun little quiz, if you so fancy it. Let me know your results.

My result:

Fire Bender

40% Fire, 35% Earth, 15% Water and 25% Air!

So, apparently, I'm one of the bad guys.

I screwed up...

A night with my maiden of choice

So went to see Iron Maiden last night, was awesome. Firstly, we had to get to the SECC in Glasgow, however, and we went by rather a long, scenic route. Despite my worries, however, we got there just in time to miss Airbourne - not that we knew. We'd been worried about getting back to Edinburgh, and maybe missing the last bus, and standing there with it coming up to 9, we were getting a bit worried. The support isn't on yet? Then UFO's Doctor Doctor crashes out, and realisation hits: it's time.

Satellite 15...boomed out, and it was an odd intro, not really Maiden. Not bad. The Final Frontier was the official opener, a pretty simple Iron Maiden anthem. It's probably the most forgettable of Iron Maiden's such ventures, not particularly pacy or catchy. El Dorado was up next, and it is not what you call the best of their work either. The start was not the most convincing.

2 Minutes to Midnight kicked things into a higher gear: I've never been a massive fan of the song, but the crowd energy was up and everyone knows the lyrics. The Talisman was up next, probably the best recieved of the new Maiden songs - the momentum sweeps you up and, despite the length, it was a whole lot of fun.

Bruce then took a moment to talk to the crowd, but didn't really say too much. He led us into Coming Home, a fantastic song. Fantastic song. But much of the chorus was lost in the general sound, and the crowd didn't seem to know it, weirdly. I enjoyed it, but the crowd didn't seem to take to it. Dance of Death was up next, and for me it was one of the highlights of the night. It's a song that really succeeds at painting a picture with music, and it's got atmosphere and great riffs galore.

With the The Trooper, suddenly we're into the staples. The crowd drown out Bruce, and it's got the easiest chorus to sing in the world. The Wicker Man is up next, and holy shit is this a good song, which also served the purpose of killing my vocal chords. It was easily the best thing that'd been played to that point, and the crowd responded fervourously to it.

At this point, things took a turn for the odd. Bruce Dickinson decided he wanted to take a moment to do his Bono bit. Peace, love, don't discriminate. That stuff. So he talks about religion and race and then someone throws a Scottish flag onto the stage. Completely unprompted, the crowd bursts into "O Flower of Scotland", our national anthem. I'm not sure to be embarrassed or proud. The message was clear: don't patronise us, we're not gonna let go of our identities. Not that I disagree with Bruce, but you know, gotta pick your time and place.

The next run of songs was blisteringly good: Blood Brothers, When the Wild Wind Blows, The Evil That Men Do, Fear of the Dark. Some of my favourites, especially The Evil That Men Do, with Fear of the Dark being a live staple of the band. Really, what can I say? They were fantastic. When the Wild Wind Blows was an odd one, however, as it's not exactly a concert piece. It's a song that is atmospheric and not quite like anything else Iron Maiden has done. The music paints a picture, and is both big and small at the same time. Bruce gives one of the most restrained performances he ever has. The crowd was not exactly sure what to do, though.

Iron Maiden was their "closing" song, a different one from their earliest days. It's a lot more punky but energetic and very much crowd pleasing. The Number of the Beastpassed so quickly that I can barely remember it. It's an overrated one, but damn fun. Hallowed Be Thy Name came penultimate, another staple, and a song often considered by fans to be their best. No doubt, it's a great, great song. Atmospheric, fast paced, catchy riffs, with both energy and despair.

Running Free, their proto-punk first song, was an odd finisher, yet made so much sense. Listening to the original, it does not sound liek an Iron Maiden song, yet on stage there's no question that it fits and adds a welcome variety to their sound. It was a fitting end, and a great end.

So yeah, I enjoyed them a lot. The first two songs were somewhat of a weaker deal, but beyond that the setlist was the thing of dreams. It was not without darmatics, from Bruce's constant boardwalk running, to fighting giant costume Eddies, to a stage which turned into Eddie's head. The devil even made an appearance during The Number of the Beast. And Fear of the Dark live. Just Fear of the Dark Live.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A return

So I have this dream, and there's these machines digging down to the centre of the Earth. No, not the Earth - I'm somewhere new and strange and yet I seem to know the place well. I'm down in some caves, watching as screens show me the inevitable descent, the drills turning their way towards the centre of the planet. And I know they need to stop. What sleeps down there must not be awoken. Then the drills reach the bottom and stop, and it's free.

This dream did not act as the catalyst for Citizen Alpha, but it's the damned nearest I can get to identifying the one moment that kicked off my first ever real project. Citizen Alpha was a swirling storm of ideas and daydreams and concepts that had existed in my head for a good long while. We had people who could, through a computer, gain access to different worlds. There was a maze of corridors beneath the world of Citizen Alpha that was inexplicable in origin, and below that the drills worked. The whole city was an artificial environment below the surface of the planet, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, and at one point some was going to turn off the sky. A prophecy seemed to control the actions of the characters that moved through the pages, and a dragon was going to destroy the city. Demon-esque people, too, were involved. People with strange powers ran through the city and evoked a discrimination exploration very much reminiscent of that seen in any X-Men film. The story was driven by events that happened before the story took place, and old grudges and feuds informed the plot at every step.

Citizen Alpha was a veritable riot of ideas, a mess of such convoluted ambitious that I cannot help but admire the writing audacity of my younger self. Through my experimentation and attempts to push myself, my writing identity has been lost it often seems. I can't help but feel that it's about time I recaptured some of that lost spark.

Television Review - Torchwood: Miracle Day: The New World

So it's back with new, sexy American clothes. Also, a budget, something that BBC programs tend not to have the luxury of. Torchwood, the crap-tastic Doctor Who spin-off that actually got good near the end. Very good, actually. So now its back with a bigger budget and a more diverse backdrop than Cardiff. Things can only get better, right?

So the scene starts with Torchwood gone. Jack's disappeared. Gwen is living a solitary life, Welshing it up out in the wastelands (or non-urban Wales as it's more conventionally known). Actually, I poke fun, but its very pretty, and its prettiness is shown off in a few sweeping helicopter shots that are not only a bit pointless, but more pressingly feel outta place. We get exciting and dramatic music, sweeping countryside shots, all building up to scenes of Gwen and her husband painting. Hooray?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First we are introduced to our American protagonists, a couple of agents, Rex and Esther. Esther calls up Rex as he's driving, wondering about a mass email that was sent saying just the word "Torchwood", but as she talks Rex crashes and recieves a pole through the chest. Like any good action hero Rex, soldiers on, however, and as he lies writing in pain in a hospital bed he is told the news: no one is dying. In the world.

What follows is an episode that tries to slowly entwine the different story strands together and establish the new Torchwood cast, to reasonable success. This is a hook and a confluence of characters, but in terms of judging how the series will turn out it'll be the next episode that really acts as the mission statement. The mystery element, as it pertains to Torchwood, is never particularly compelling. As the audience, we know who Torchwood are already and the episode tries to play the mystery segment straight.

I don't like the directing in Torchwood. Not at all. This is no different, although as someone who knows very little about directing I have trouble explaining why. It just really rubs me up the wrong way.

Our villain, a murderer and a paedophile, looks to be a fun one. He's introduced to us in an unambiguous manner: he's famous for his defence of "she should have run faster". When you get a villain so unrepentantly, audaciously evil you can't help but feel that he's certainly going to make things worth watching. The one scene he does have, where he plants the seeds of his escape from jail, however, doesn't work. It's not well written or directed and the acting fails to convey the sense of menace, or the struggle going on.

There are some interesting discussions going on here about the portrayal of death in fiction that was discussed elsewhere. Certainly, by not just using this as an excuse to revel in set-pieces, instead giving us a couple of rather nasty scenes, Miracle Day shows that it is handling its theme decently. It is rather undone, however, by the episode's ending. An action scene with explosions and weapons and not a hint of self-reflection? Glad to see this new treatment of violence is followed through with for less than half an episode.

Torchwood: Miracle Day: The New World was always gonna be a tricky one. It has to bring Jack and Gwen back into the fold and introduce our shiny new America characters, whilst setting up the overarching concept driving the plot forward. It does so rather clumsily, but when the series settles down and the characters develop some group chemistry we could see something very entertaining. This isn't a great episode, but it does show enough of a promising glimmer to justify watching a few more episodes.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Film Review - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

We all know that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is the coninuation, of course, of Part 1. We also know it's the finale of an eight movie franchise, which in turn is an adaptation of a seven book series. This makes talking about it rather difficult: do I talk about as an adaption? In relation to the other films? In relation to it's immediate predecessor? Certainly, it's a movie that cannot be talked about as if in a vacuum.

So as we begin we see Harry and co. recovering from their narrow escape at Malfoy house, and the recent death of Dobby. They're still horcrux hunting, and they reckon they've got their eyes on another. Gringott's Bank, however, will be a tough place to get into. They embark on a journey that will see them return to the place that is as much a character in the franchise as Harry, Ron or Hermione: Hogwarts.

After the monotonous and confused Part 1, Part 2 gets off to a far better start. As soon as they find themselves travelling through the underground carts of Gringott's, a real sense of adventure and fantasy bleeds into the movie. This helps restore a sense of wonder to the proceedings and once again restores some of the character to the series that was lost when the decision was made to make the stories more grey and gritty. Certainly, this is the movie that strikes the balance best, allowing the dark tone and fantastical elements to compliment each other nicely.

Not that the magic is anymore than just guns with a special plot convenience function, and they stopped trying to hide this with Part 1. Does make it hard to credit that Voldemort is that powerful or that it has to be Harry who can kill ol' Volde. Reliance on "prophecy" as a driving device for the plot is cheap and cliched, a consequence of lazy writing. Such is the conviction of the series in these things, however, that it is easy enough to forget. The plotting isn't great, but it's also got a core that is strong enough - find magic items, kill bad guy.

It can't decide whether it wants the villains to be overblown and villainous or complex and human. Ralph Fiennes is both charasmatic and oddly vulnerable as Voldemort, but the character is still basically evil for the sake of evil. At one point the new Snape controlled Hogwarts has the students torturing children. Really. Doesn't lend the villains much credibility. The way Slytherin pupils are imprisoned, so as to not to interfere with the upcoming battle, sends a clear message. Keeping in mind that those people were assigned the house, rather than choosing them, it presents a rather uncomfortable view of morality.

Tonally, this movie succeeds. It finds a consistency that Part 1 struggled with, and as such it has a very strong atomsphere. The return to Hogwarts, too, certainly helps. The location has become such an integral part of the series that the threat and the stakes don't feel all that high until the building and the community within are threatened. You can destroy London all you want, but when the non-magicked have no place in the plot, it's hard to care.

It's fast-paced, but once again it's better balanced than Part 1. Scenes feel more natural and are given time to breathe, yet the movie also charges along at a breakneck pace, only occassionally slowing down for a more reflective moment. The main action set piece, nothing less than a full scale battle, is impressive and exciting. Mostly the special effects are brilliant, and there's imagination and spectacle to be found here.

Another thing this movie does, in this long list of "better than Part 1" point I seem to be constructing, is tie up small character moments and resolution in a simple and subtle way. Part 1 has things thrown in and dismissed in moments, but the way this movie underplays many of the character moments is what really makes it a good movie. It's very clever and neat, giving the story a bigger feel without introducing plotlines that aren't really involved. Many of the movie's more emotional moments are similarly quiet, and by doing away with melodrama there is a great weight lent to proceedings. Deaths are not bawled over with slow motion and sad music, but instead they are sombre and powerful.

Ultimately, this movie is a success. It's the best of the HP movie franchise, and better than its book counterpart. Certainly, there's plenty of holes here and its not the best movie you'll see this summer, but it delivers on what it needs to. Enjoyable and commendably restrained in it's more emotional and character moments, this is a good Harry Potter movie and a good fantasy film.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Novel Review - Gears of the City

Imprisoned with a prophetic half human, half beast, the lost man learns his name: Arjun. Slowly the terrible memories emerge, and at last he remembers where—and when—he has been. . . .

In the last days of the once great city of Ararat, Arjun is just another ghost lost in the shadows of the Mountain. To some, the Mountain is a myth, to others, a weapon. Above all, it is a dark palace leaving its seekers to wander the city below. For no matter how far one walks, the Mountain never draws closer, and time itself becomes another trap.

Rescued by two sisters from the mindless Know-Nothings who erode what’s left of the city, Arjun volunteers to retrieve their long-lost third sister from a ghost like himself: Brace-Bel, another man out of time. It will require a perilous trek through ruins to a decadent mansion—one surrounded by traps and devices that could not possibly exist yet. And what awaits Arjun inside is something he could not possibly have imagined.

As he struggles to recover the lost girl and piece the fragments of his life back together, Arjun knows he must finally return to the beast to hear the rest of its prophecy. But each step is more treacherous than the last . . . and the beast who knows his fate may pose the most deadly trial yet. 


A reading of the first part of this duology is necessary to understand Gears of the City, and yet this is a very different novel to Gilman's debut. Thunderer, criminally, was never given a UK release, nor did it sell particularly well despite the slews of awards it could boast. It was a novel that was recognised by the people within the industry as brilliant, but did not get the public fantasy buying public onside. Hence, you've probably never really heard of it.

I loved Thunderer. It boasted a sharp and vivid style that verged on lyricism at times, and backed this up with a truly original and imaginative story. Ararat is a sprawling city that contains different times and cultures overlapping, and the gods walk the streets. It is a chaotic place, where reality is a lot less stable than it should be, and it, really, is the main character here. The protagonist is Arjun, a musician who comes to city looking for his god.

Arjun returns for the second novel, still searching. Here, there is a contrast to the overpowering bright and lurid world that seemed to ooze the fantastic in the first book; this is a post-industrial place, grimy and very much reminiscent of Thatcherite Britain. The gods are gone. Arjun is a different man, both because of the changed setting and the events that transpired between the first and second book. At the start he is an amnesiac, losing all sense of identity. This isn't played for mystery - the audience knows who he is already - but more to rebuild the character.

This is a very different book to Thunderer, but also the same. Gears of Wars takes much of the core aspects of the story he created and expands upon it, using the same ideas to show very different things. Certainly there is a sense of continuity, but not repetition. Perhaps many might be turned off of it by the difference, but for myself I found that the balance between new and old was well judged.

Gilman's stories are the type which could very easily be lost in what they are, in the chaotic flux of images and ideas, but like Thunderer there is also a very well crafted story. This books answers questions from the first book that don't seem to have an answer, but often they don't answer it fully enough to detract the mystery: it would be more accurate to say that Gilman gives you the information to fill in the gaps, leaving just enough ambiguity.

Perhaps the characters are the weak point. They are all well-rounded and complex, but they lack a point of emotional engagement for the readers. At the beginning of the book it feels like Gilman is struggling with Arjun's voice and character, and although this does settle down, Arjun retains the aspect of a vehicle for the story, more than a friend to take us through. The characters are all very distinctive and varied and interesting, however, so its hard to pinpoint exactly what is missing.

The way things are resolved is both very good and very rushed. It feels like Gilman may be a bit burned out, or may have ran out of time as deadlines closed in, as the core ideas here are very good and, really, the ideal way to finish the story. However, they are not given the time and development they warranted. Sure, they happen pretty damn quickly, but when you are reading your perception of time is already very skewed, so a sense of speed and suddenness can be still be conveyed even if the prose is not moving at a pace that reflects the events.

Much of the magic and wonder, too, is lost from the last book. The setting Arjun finds himself in just isn't as compelling. There is a desolation and hopelessness here. Gilman's sharp prose is a little bit at odds with the people and places he is trying to convey. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book immensly. Gears of the City is a very worthy sequel and if you enjoyed Thunderer, you're cheating yourself by not reading it.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Comic Books and Scotland

Recently, I watched a documentary about Scottish comic book creators in the mainstream US comic industry. As with any Scottish documentary made about Scotland, it was hopelessly self-aggrandising. Scotland, they more or less posit, is the centre point upon which the world turns around.

Normally I can laugh off this small countryism, yet as I watched the documentary there was a dawning. The sense that, actually, they weren't overstating things as much as it feels like they should be:
  • Frank Quitely is a much vaunted artist - at the end of 2010 a popularity poll even named him the second greatest artist of all time. Whilst this has to be taken with a pinch of salt, it's certainly an incredibly remarkable feat for a simple Glasgow boy. An incredibly remarkable feat for a simple Glasgow boy amongst a list of incredibly remarkable feats.
  • Alan Grant co-created Robocop, one of the most recogniseable comic characters outside of the DC and Marvel staples alongside an American that lived all of his life in Scotland, John Wagner. He went on to become one of the major Batman writers post-Frank Miller.
  • Mark Miller is really one of the two big name writers in Marvel alongisde Brian Michael Bendis, the highest selling comic company with a growing market share. The man can't even get his ideas down on paper without being offered movie deals.
  • Grant Morrison.
Although the DC reboot might shake this up, there's no denying that Morrison is the big writer in DC behind Geoff Johns. Currently, Scottish comic book creators are arguably doing better than their English counterparts. For a country without a particularly strong tradition of anything resembling superhero fiction, what with The Beano, The Dandy, Oor Wullie and The Broons being our main comic book exports, and not so large a population, we're having rather a flabberghastingly large effect.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Film Review - Tree of Life

So your grandfather sits down and tells you a story. It's an old one - you've heard it before. Your mother told you it, sat you down and for twenty minutes fully regaled you with all of the details and nuances of the tale. Your grandfather takes two and a half hours with it.

This is the Tree of Life, a lush and vivid slideshow of visuals, overlaid with beautiful music. From time to time Jessica Chastain’s character will whisper something vaguely philosophical in our ear, but her words are not important. This is a meditative experience, luring you into a trance-like state as a variety of beautifully realised visual metaphors told a separate story that unfolded mainly off-screen.

Then director and “writer” Terence Malik makes the decision to include a story in the middle of all these lovely images. And this is a project that, from the start, just screams “no writers allowed”, as if Malik had pencilled it onto a piece of paper and stuck it to the door of the development office. This is a place for artistes and auteurs, which perhaps makes what I have to say about this movie so surprising.

This is like Transformers 3. If you like that kinda thing, you’ll enjoy it. If not, then I can’t really call it a good movie, even if it does sit at the other extreme of the spectrum. It’s not as if I am particularly averse to pretention: this movie is at it’s strongest when it lapses into non-linear storytelling and elaborate visual metaphors. When we get to see the boy growing up, starting from his birth, things venture into meandering melodrama.

Sure, it still uses visual metaphors to convey it’s themes and emotional heart, and the execution does bring a weight to proceedings. At times, you can feel the strain that our main character feels through his relationship with his father. In the most part, unfortunately, the lingering style of the direction and the underwriting really count against what is already quite an uninteresting drama. It seems to pretend it’s more important than it is, too, and overall just drags. Towards the end of the latter part of the more realistic, linear story you really end up feeling fed up. Then Malik turns on the weird again, and won me back over.

The highlight, for me, was the film’s brilliant music. It borrows heavily from the classical world, but not without good reason. Perhaps without the glorious music, much of this movie would have seemed false, an attempt to pander to the emotions. From a bit of Brahm to Bach’s Toccata and Fuge, a personal favourite, there’s a lot here to love with your ears.

Thematically, the film wants to be about faith and by extension life and death, but it meanders far too much. Water is the central metaphor as a bringer of life, an agent of death and (as evidenced by baptism) a vehicle of faith. It’s overextended hugely, to the point where I kinda gave up working out all of it’s different uses and connotations. Herein lies the movie’s biggest problem: it’s length. It dilutes the whole thing, the themes and emotions. Everything is so convoluted that it feels like any pleasure that can be gained from decoding it’s elaborate repetition is not worth the bother.

This movie was at times lovely on the eye, and interesting, and thought provoking; it features a great cast and a gorgeous soundtrack. Yet, were you to ask me to sum it up in three words: long, slow, repetitious. This movie makes too many mistakes and is too into itself to not fully embrace the pretention of the whole thing. Whilst I don’t regret seeing it, I can’t recommend it either.

So yeah: count me stumped.

Comic Review - Kill Your Boyfriend

Life ever feel like life ain't going nowhere? Like society is just trying to shape you into another norm observing clone? This is the rebellious intellectual, a punk revolt against the world that seeks to suffocate us. Our middle class protagonist, who goes unnamed throughout the book, is frustrated and bored. Her family looks only to tell her how she should fall more in line, her boyfriend is too repressed to do much beyond talking about fantasy novels. Then in comes our second protagonist, also unnamed, who flouts societal norms and commits criminal acts. After storming out of her home in a huff, The Girl tells The Boy about her problems, and her life. The Boy's response? 'Kill your boyfriend.' And so begins their odyssey into counter cultural madness.

Grant Morrison and Philip Bond's one-shot story is remarkably timeless for a story firmly rooted in it's context. It contains many ideas and fashions that harken back to it's day, but expresses ideas that are so universal as to allow the comic to easily overcome any datedness. Sure enough, The Girl will likely stay as an incredibly relatedable character until the west finds itself engulfed in some sort of post-apocalyptic scenario.  In this, however, Grant Morrison lays something of a trap for himself.

On the whole, I found Kill Your Boyfriend to be a bit lightweight. Moving alongside The Boy and The Girl, you get the feel that not much weight is put behind any of the characters actions; they exist in a world where nothing really means anything, and thus their violent and criminal escapades have little in the way of consequences. This, an interview tells me, is exactly the point: Morrison isn't espousing any of the ideals and philosophies touted in the book's pages, but rather just having a fun time. It's easy to see how some people missed this though, as such themes beget social commentary and Morrison is known for the depth of his writing.

The art and the writing are a great cocktail, mixing and infusing well. The dialogue is snappy and has a charm to it. This is an enjoyable and tightly structured story, flavoured by rampant amorality. Not the best thing I've read by Morrison, not by a long shot, but a very worthy and enjoyable read.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Some randoms notes

So it's coming down outside at a nightmarish pace, and at one point thunder and lightning was more or less above the house. Perfect atmosphere for blog writing, right?

I have to admit that the whole 30 day book thing completely slipped my mind, not sure if it's worth continuing. Thankfully, Gears of the City has turned up so expected a review of that soonish. On top of which, I recently saw the newest Transformers and have a lot to say about it. Too much, maybe. Gonna try and condense my thoughts and take all the analysis of expectations and criticisms stuff out of it, sicne I'm prone to meander enough as it is, without trying to take on numerous different topics at once.

My country has went a tad insane. We've got a scandal with widespread corruption, criminal activity on an institutional level and political impotency. Just too interesting to not go into in further detail.

Also, this. Urgh.

Good god is it raining something fierce. This is tropical storm territory, not damp Scotland. Best start work on that ark.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Television Review - Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Boy in the Iceberg

Not so long ago I was a massive anime fan, wasting hours of my life in front of the computer, back when things like Naruto and Bleach and Full Metal Alchemist were available on Youtube. Amongst my favourites has to be one that, technically, isn't really an anime. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a western cartoon made in the style of anime, inspired by the whole gamut of East Asian cinema on top of Japanese animation. A few days back I found the first series for cheap, so here goes a rewatch. I've no idea how many episodes I will blog about, but here are my thoughts on the first:

The title sequence is an expository affair. There are people called benders that can manipualte the four elements of this world: water, fire, earth and wind. To each element there is a corresponding society of people, and the Fire Nation are rather an unpleasant lot. There is one man, however, with complete mastery of all four elements, the Avatar, who is able to keep them in check. Unfortunately, nobody has seen the bugger in a century. Now, the Fire Nation has almost won the war.

We are introduced proper to the series with a squabbling brother and sister. Katara and Sokka, two out of our protagonist trio, are out hunting fish in the ice and sea of the South Pole. This is a tightly written scene, with a lot of exposition and characterisation being delivered at the same time. We learn a lot about the plot and the setting and the characters all in a manner that is fairly subtle. Unfortunately, there is one reason that this scene is not a good opening: it's slow and kinda flat. The actors have yet to really settle into their roles, so can't carry the scene, and nothing is really happening.

This trend carries on throughout the episode. What is going on here is good stuff, but needs to have had some action to hook the viewers in, or maybe a mystery or two. Everything, more or less, is put on the table. We know who these characters are and where they stand in relation to one another. Without any action or mystery, this episode doesn't work as a way to hook people in.

The humour, more often than not, doesn't really work. It's too predictable and cliche, and seems to be there out of a fear that children wouldn't like the series otherwise. Maybe that's me being a bit unfair on the series, but knowing how good this series is, it's a bit frustrating.

For all that's it's not a great hook episode, it is very effective in giving you a good feel for the characters and the world. Certainly, you get a good feeling of the fun that's to be had and the heart that the characters' possess. It's not a bad way to open the series, but it's not necessarily something that is gonna compel someone to watch on. If you come across the series, don't let this stop you. When the series finds its feet, it's really excellent.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Novel Review - Catch-22

Day 06: A book that makes you sad

This is part of a 30 day book review challnge thing. You can read my rather glib introduction here.


Meet one of my favourite books of all time everybody. Catch-22 is a book that needs little introduction, a modern classic really unlike anything else I've come across. It has a bold, mad premise: war is so nonsensical and tragic that it's funny. Is the laughter a catharctic attempt to reconcile the horrors, or a depressed cry for help? Is this a parody, a satire or just outright dispair in prose form?

Meet Yossarian, an American pilot stationed in Italy during the Second World War. He's surrounded by madmen, dangerous all of them, and for some reason everyone wants to kill him. With the few allies in the camp he's trying to find some way to get grounded, some way to stop flying. Theoretically, after a certain amount of flights pilots don't have to fly anymore, but the top brass keeps increasing the number to make themselves look good. There is another option: if a man is not healthy enough to fly, then he is to be grounded. Only, there's a catch.

The Catch-22 is an insiduous thing. Anyone who flies is insane, therefore obviously not fit for service; but those who want to get off are obviously sane, since no sane man wants to fly, and thus healthy enough to fly.

For me, the defining feature of this book is the double edge everything has, blanced between comedy and tragedy. The real lack of any stable, sane counterpoint contributes to this, painting a world which has lost sight of the value of anything. Where are the boundaries in this world? Are there any? Complimented by the narrative style that espouses conventional structure and style to a point where many are likely to be put off. If you can stomach it, do so.

The characters will break your heart. Almost every single one of them. There were times where I had to put the book down and stop reading. In retrospect, I can still feel gossebumps run up my arms when I remember scenes, moments, captured within those nigh unhinged text. The cartoonish unreality infects the characters as much as it effects the way the story is told. These characters all leave a mark.

Catch-22 is a story about madness like none other, in any medium. It's pretty difficult to capture in words, and not spoiling a lot of it is taking a hell o' a lot of restraint. If you've not read this one already, then this is your time: never has tragedy been so funny, and never has laughing been such an expression of sadness, for me at the very least.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Novel Review (contains spoilers) - Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

Day 04: Favorite book of your favorite series.

This is part of a 30 day book review challnge thing. You can read my rather glib introduction here.

This post will not be spoiler free, I am afraid, so go read the novel first. Seriously, do it, it's a phenomenal book.


Again, gonna have to bend the rules here. Asking me to pick a favourite Discworld book is a question doesn't really make sense to me. There's so many brilliant books in the series, and I'd be hard pressed to really put my finger on a favourite. So instead I'll pick one of my favourites, Men at Arms. I liked Guards! Guards!, but it wasn't until Men at Arms that the Watch series really captured me, and since the Watch series is my favourtire discworld story strand it's a logical choice.

In the city of Ankh-Morpork lies a dangerous weapon, hidden beneath layers of dust in a nigh forgotten museum. There are murders in the city too and Sam Vimes has to investigate these murders and deal with the evil this artefact releases, whilst rebuilding the City Night Watch. The plot is fast paced and colourful, an action story and a mystery. This being Pratchett, however, it is also very much a character story.

Pratchett uses the characters in ways that are perhaps not particularly original, using the different races to explore tolerance and fear of others different to us. Each character has enough heart and humour, however, that they become far more than merely representations. Pratchett has a touch with people and the way they express themselves which is almost reminiscent of Only Fools and Horses. This is how the British working classes used to talk, and their interactions give them a lot of background without explicitly saying much.

Thematically, Pratchett is up to his old tricks, both manipulating fantasy cliches and reflecting back on to people themselves. This story is about an evil force being unwittingly unleashed onto the world, yet the evil force takes shape as just a gun. A gun that seems to corrupt everyone it touches - this, at first, seems anvilciously decrying that guns are evil, a trite and slightly stupid moral. However, Pratchett is always key to place significance not on the gun itself as a physical machine, but on the power it represents. It's not the machine itself, but the power it gives people.

The mystery element of the book is really well done. For a while you think you know the answer to it, because Pratchett seems to outright tell you. Misdirection. When the true antagonist is revealed, it is a rewardingly unexpected moment. The serious side of the story is also very well balanced against the humour that runs through the story, neither overbalancing the other.

Men at Arms is a novel in fantastical setting, yet the fantastical elements are all treated as mundane. This, really, is central to the mythos of the Discworld book, and books like these where the fantastical elements are almost incidental really exemplify this. Pratchett is an author, as you no doubt know by now, I have nothing but the most profuse praise for. Check Men at Arms out.