Thursday, May 31, 2012

May 2012 DVD Roundup!

Its that time again, when I ramble on about the DVDs we've seen in the last couple of months. With the weekends being slightly quieter, coupled with a raft of films at the 12A rating and below, so we can watch them with Ewan, we've got through quite a few.

The Secret World of Arrietty
It seems wrong to be underwhelmed by a Studio Ghibli movie, given the fantastic track record they have, and the lavish attention to detail they bestow on their productions, but truth be told Arrietty, whilst beautiful to look at, feels strangely hollow. It may be over-familiarity, both of the visual style and the storytelling beats, but after a while I just sort of phased out, opened a book, and started reading. It's hard to pinpoint why though - there is nothing wrong with it as a film, and it's a solid adaptation of the classic "The Borrowers", but I thought the BBC adaption that was on over Christmas, whilst taking far more liberties, was superior in pretty much every way. And after a few recent so-so productions, I really am starting to worry that Ghibli is losing it's edge.

Cowboys and Aliens
OK, so what to expect with Cowboys and Aliens? Well there should be cowboys, right, and Aliens, right? and they fight. and, um, thats it. C&A has a good cast which is clearly enjoying itself, and makes a pretty fun tour around every Western cliche they can find en route to the showdown against some pretty generic Aliens (seriously, do they all shop at the same "space alien weapons and starships" store?) but in the end this is pretty popcorn lightweight fare that makes you smile without needing to engaging your brain.

Heavy Metal
Me and Z were chatting some time back about Heavy Metal - the 80s animated concept movie we'd both heard of and never seen, so we stuck it on lovefilm to have a watch. It's horribly dated of course, not just the animation but the obsession with blood and boobs, but its fascinating to watch and you can imagine the impact it would have had at the time. As a series of vignettes the quality can be pretty patchy with some stories stronger than others, and in places its magazine roots show through more strongly than others. But its definitely worth a view.

Horrible Bosses & Bad Teacher

I'm going to mention these two together as I feel pretty much the same way about both. They both aspire to be black adult comedies, both feature a strong cast giving game performances, and both are, actually, pretty funny in places. But in the final analysis they both fail to be black, or adult enough, and end up just sort of middling when their conceits and casts could probably have delivered something more if they took a few more chances. If you look at something like Bridesmaids, or The Hangover, both have hugely sentimental finales and both work hard to keep the characters mostly sympathetic, but both allow the jokes to be sufficiently outrageous to match their basic premises. Like i say, fun, but they both feel like a missed opportunity.

Green Lantern
I've seen some real hate for Green Lantern around the place, and certainly it's not a patch on any of the recent Marvel superhero films, but really it just suffers from an excess of mediocrity. For starters, it feels like it can't quite decide what tone it wants to set - are going for four-colour or are we going gritty here? - and the costume and set design speaks of that conflict. Similarly it can't decide with its characters either, with odd loops of progression going seemingly nowhere (why establish that Carol is a great pilot only to relegate her to damsel in distress for the finale?) and too much setup for future films they are now unlikely to make because the first one doesn't really work.

Cars 2
Finally, a film that I suspect would get a far easier ride if not made by Pixar. Cars always felt out of place in the Pixar line up, a decent but oddly derivative film and Cars 2 looks on the outside like a commercial, rather than artistic choice of project. That said, its not just a rehash of the earlier film and clearly comes from a desire to make a Spy homage, rather that the first films NASCAR homage. And it's mostly successful; quickly paced, decent script and polished to a shine. Unfortunately, when I see the Pixar logo, I just expect more, and Cars 2 is merely good entertainment...which may be a harsh verdict, but there you have it.

As you can see, there is no real stand outs here, but a lot of solid, middle-of-the-road entertainment. I guess sometimes that's enough...

Friday, May 18, 2012

TV Review: Fringe, Series 4

As I've already mentioned, I'm pretty pleased that loss-making, viewer-light Fringe has been renewed for a final run of 13 episodes to wrap up its storylines and say anything the writers feel is left unsaid. It's had a strange journey over the last three seasons and entered it's fourth a completely unrecognisable show to the one that started out as a mad-science themed X-files clone with better acting, and the third season, with its crazed jumping-between-universes narrative and strong central performances from a cast playing several versions of their established characters, stands for me as one of the strongest seasons of genre television I've ever seen. So with a big change to the status quo at the end of that season, where would they go from here? 

Friday, May 11, 2012

It's Renewals Season!

Well, over in the US, at least. But seeing as with only a few exceptions, US TV is where all the good shows are coming from, it makes it quite an exciting time for followers of quality on the box.

So the good news is that Fringe got a final 13 episodes to wrap everything up, which is excellent news and Fox deserves a lot of praise for sticking with a show they lose money on in the short because it's unique and interesting and the sort of show that they think they should be putting out there. I think we all have to stop bitching about them cancelling Firefly now, OK? Also, Community has another series (albeit a shortened one) , and cable hits like The Walking DeadJustified and Game of Thrones are unsurprisingly coming back next year.

Also returning is the solidly decent, if not spectacular, Once Upon a Time, which I've become passably hooked on, and the patchy-but-engaging Castle, both of which I like possibly more than I should, so there's more them to look forward to, as well as the long list of shows I'm miles behind on.

Whats more interesting is the effect that renewal or cancellation has on my desire to watch - Once Upon a Time being renewed (because it's a hit) makes me more likely to keep watching, but with Alcatraz being cancelled its suddenly a lot less likely I'll start to work through the episodes stacked up on my DVR. Which is odd really, because so many of the shows I like don't have huge audiences, and as a fan of genre shows the hard edge of cancellation for shows I've become attached to is something I have to live with. So why should I care if Alcatraz is cancelled, it doesn't mean its no good, right?

Mind you they also cancelled Terra Nova, and that was rubbish, or at least far more dull than any show involving people being chased by dinosaurs had any right to be. But renewed Falling Skies, which was far more dull than any show involving the Earth being conquered by aliens had any right be, too.

Still, its nice that come the autumn, after I've spent the summer desperately trying to catch up with these shows, there are new episodes to look forward to!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Movie Review: Marvel Avengers Assemble

Look, if it's OK with everyone, I'm just going to call it "The Avengers" or just "Avengers". In the latest act of naming lunacy, here in the UK we have to call this movie "Marvel Avengers Assemble" which is long-winded and un-catchy and stupid and I can't think of a single good reason why the decision was made to change it unless there was some weird legal thing to do with the old TV show (and deeply crappy movie) but I'm more inclined to believe that some coked up Marketing Executive just wanted to make his mark. But, title notwithstanding, me and Z got out to the movies again this weekend and just like everyone else we went to Marvels long-awaited superhero team-up movie.

Oh before we start - I've already seen folks on the internet doing warm up laps for the upcoming "Which is better, The Dark Knight Rises or Avengers?" debate and would advise if you're readying for that, please do us all a favour and go punch yourself in the crotch until you come to your senses and realise that a) its possible for them both to be excellent and we should hope that is the case, and b) one of them isn't even out yet. Thanks.

So with that said, back to the review.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thinking: On Value...

I've been having some slightly tongue-in-cheek conversations with a friend recently about his apparent spurning of fiction, after some unsuccessful run ins with books he's been recommended. The only think they've had in common, really, is that they are works of fiction, and he seems a lot happier now he's gone back to ready worthy tomes on history and economics. Each to their own, of course - and I've certainly gone through phases of reading factual material exclusively - but what's been interesting is the term "value" has come up a few times in the conversation, and that has got me thinking, because value, as applied to fiction, is an interesting concept.

Now I'm not talking here about financial value, or the "£ per hour of entertainment" metric, or anything like that. Relaxing and entertainment clearly have a value, because we all do it in our ways, to stave off madness, stress, or passing thoughts of murder. Maybe that last one's just me. But anyway, entertainment has a value, clearly, whether its on the xbox, in front of Coronation Street, reading a book, or walking the dog. So lets park that, and think about works of fiction.

Again, as a society we clearly value fiction because we create so damn much of it. Telling each other stories is what we do, even when we deal with real events. Politicians talk about "narrative" to get their message across, news channels of all stripes spend a long time trying to frame events in clean terms, even when events aren't, and as someone with a keen interest in History it's noticeable that many of the most popular periods are ones with easily discernible through-lines which help the interested to get into the meat of the subject matter. But this is using the refined techniques of fiction to portray the real world, and make it simpler to understand, so what is the attraction, therefore of the purely fanciful, simplified world of fiction itself.

Because it's not real, you know? By the very nature of fiction the only truth is artificial. We talk about works being "realistic" or "gritty" but they are as artificial as a Disney film, the author has just made the choice to resolve his storylines that way. I love me some James Ellroy, but the soul-tainting corruption of his works that none of his characters can escape is still a stylistic choice and as contrived (in a good way) as any happy ever after you care to mention. Sure, fiction can make us laugh or cry, but there must be more to it than that, something that separates say, Ellroy, from say, Dan Brown, and that's harder to define.

G K Chesterton - a writer I don't particularly like, oddly - wrote "Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." What he is saying here is that value of fiction is the lessons it imparts, and crucially those lessons are true irrespective of the objective truth of the story itself. You can learn courage, and leadership, and other virtues from imaginary people doing imaginary things, and in fact you can learn them better, because the power of the author over the narrative means you can strip away the messy caveats of the real world. 

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath exposes the desperation of the dustbowl better than any news story because he can load the story to make the point he is trying to make. Bilbo Baggins resonates because the story of being a small person in a world far bigger, and far scarier than you ever imagined is something every child will have to go through. Winston Smith's world remains an loudly echoing warning despite never existing and that fact it probably never could. Dickens stirred the conscience of the age with his studies of poverty and wealth, Wells directed colonialist destruction on the height of Imperial Britain, Neil Shute's On the Beach made me cry, and Slaughterhouse Five left me torn between hope and despair for the nature of humanity. 

All of these stories are false, but all of them are true. 

And I think that's the value of fiction - it can be a powerful tool to present truth, not fact, to tell you things, to show you things, free from the messy burden of reality. Sure, sometimes it's frivolous nonsense, but the power of stories comes from artificial control of the narrative to deliver the intent of the author, because of their sometimes loose connection to the real world, not despite it. We tell stories to understand the world, to express our desire to change it, and to open our minds to things beyond our eyes and ears, and I can't think of anything that deserves to be valued more.