Friday, 28 October 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #10, The Big Lebowski

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As a film, The Big Lebowski is a lot like its protagonist, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski. It's lacking a little in forward moment, preferring to luxuriate in individual moments than get caught up in any big sweeping plot. They're both hugely influenced by what's around them: The Dude speaks largely in borrowed phrases from other character's dialogue, while the film steals from noir, slacker comedies and westerns. The main thing that Lebowski and Lebowski have in common, however, is that they exude purest undiluted charm.

The film is a pastiche of the hard-boiled-detective-pulp-noir tradition, in particular Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and the 1946 film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and, personality notwithstanding, The Dude finds himself placed in the role of detective. The film's humour and personality comes from how ill-fitting he is for the role; not so much hard-boiled as baked.

A case of mistaken identity leads to a urinated-upon rug leads to a meeting with the other, far richer Jeffrey Lebowski and his trophy wife Bunny. Who promptly disappears, as is the way of these things. It's something I've touched on here and there, but I staunchly believe that the detective story is the purest form of fiction, a single driving force driving reader and protagonist forward. Here it's used to stitch together a loose series of locations and setpieces, from a bacchanalian party at the pad of "known pornographer" Jackie Treehorn to the sweary smashing up of a stranger's car.

It gives the Coens an excuse to show off. There are shots of a naked woman against a sheer black background being thrown up beyond the top of the frame and falling out of sight before trampolining back up; dream sequences which mix opera, bowling, and porn. It's absolutely luscious cinema of a type that's rare in comedies.

The places we're led through are individually fascinating, brilliant proof that it's not just fantasy films that do great world-building, but it's The Dude's charm that ties the piece together as, for example, a fine rug might tie together a room. He's a force of personality, a common theme that will emerge a lot in the films to come (particularly numbers 5, 4 and 2). The kind of guy who goes shopping in his pyjamas, and buys a single carton of milk with a cheque. Without seeming to try, his appearance is totally iconic; dressing gown, shades, and permanent lowball of White Russian adding up to a slacker Jesus.

The film is full of quotable lines, and for the most part The Dude merely echoes them, but the fact that they're being delivered by Jeff Bridges. Every line is delivered perfectly, given the slightest spin, and he makes even the slightest movement almost quotable. It seems like an easy, comfortable performance but in truth Bridges is an high-precision surgeon of an actor in this film. He effortlessly makes The Dude someone in whose presence you want to spend all of your time. And The Big Lebowski, in two-hour chunks, gives you the opportunity to do just that.
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Monday, 24 October 2011

Look, Ma, I Writ Somethin'!

I realised today I've been a little quiet of late, so I'm currently assembling a few posts behind the scenes. However, there are a few recent things from the mouth of my Dirty Mistress that I've been really pleased with, though, so it's time for a little cross-promotion.

On Frozen Synapse, and its Similarities to Squares
"Like chess. That’s the old chestnut, isn’t it? The holy grail of strategy game design? And yes, Frozen Synapse is a bit like chess: a turn-based game of combat between two opposing sides, different classes - knight, castle, rocket launcher guy, shotgun guy, bishop, etc - each with their own ways of moving and attacking. Most importantly, it shares those mind-expanding moments when you can predict exactly what your opponent will do next, and the agonising slap to the brain when they do something totally different."
On Minigolf Flash Game Wonderputt

"Deep in Wonderputt’s DNA are those Grow games, where you click wildly to watch a monitor-sized world bloom into something ludicrous and beautiful. Like those games, the actual ‘game’ part isn’t so important; the visuals are the appeal here. It’s like watching the sketchbook of an accomplished doodler come to life, with enough interactivity to keep you involved."

On Florence & The Machine, as Remixed by The Weeknd

"It does all the stuff I imagine people who like Florence think her music does in the first place. It takes Florence Welch, human being with a rather nice voice, which let’s imagine as a single beam of white light, and then runs it through a prism, splitting it into the voices of many, rattling around inside your head. It transcends, into something that can only be supernatural."

On Cooking A Steak to Perfection

"Leave the steak. Seriously, leave it alone. No pokin’, no turnin’, no nothin’. You only want to have to turn the meat once, when the bottom is fully cooked. This should take two to three minutes, give or take depending on whether you want it more well-done or rare."

Friday, 21 October 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #11, Pulp Fiction

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Inevitably, approaching the very heights of a list like this, as we now are, something changes. There's a move from films you love for one or two reasons, that you've seen two or three times to two-hour chunks of pure cinema you've seen enough times, talked about and fawned over enough that, over time, they've become woven directly into your personality. The relationship is just different: from now on, this list becomes pretty much The Films That Made Me. I'll try not to get too indulgent, try and keep the pesky author out of it as much as possible, but you're just going to have to allow me this one.

Watching Pulp Fiction now feels like nothing more snuggling into an old favourite pair of pyjamas. Baggy in places, sure, maybe with holes you've picked over the years, but familiar, and comfortable. There was much laughing at jokes the moment before they happened and - in the case of Urge Overkill's Girl You'll Be A Woman soon - singing along. For all the violence, drugs and naughty naughty swears, it was an experience best described as 'nice'.

So while it played: I reminisced about the first time I watched it - in the living room on a Friday night, while the parents were out - and doodling sharp-suited assassins in GCSE art. I spot moves I stole for awkward school discos before I could dance. Occasionally, I rolled over and watched the colours twinkle on the laminated poster of Jules & Vincent I bought on a school trip to France. I mentally placed tracks on the soundtrack (which I bought on the same trip, and which pretends to follow the film's chronology but doesn't, really) and finally worked out why Strawberry Letter 23 is on there, except for the fact that it's one of the best songs ever...

It was an intensely personal experience, is what I'm saying. I'm indulging myself a little, but that's what it felt like: the pyjamas I was wearing as I watched it, or the hot chocolate I'm sipping as I write this. Warm, fuzzy nostalgia of the kind I don't often have for my actual real-life memories of school.

Not that I had a bad childhood or anything, don't worry your pretty little self, but rather that I'm one of those people for whom memories don't come too easily. Retrieving them most often means a sharp wince of embarassment, or else fuzzy, like someone smeared Vaseline on the lens. As you're reading this, it's quite likely that you too define yourself by the culture you consume, at least occasionally. It's not an attempt to look more intelligent or interesting or, God forbid, cool (I certainly wouldn't be writing these if that was my aim). I'm not even sure it was something I chose. I just know that, on holiday in the small Spanish town I went to every summer for nearly a decade, when my mom points out a place and says 'remember when...?' I struggle, but that if I stand in one place for long enough I can give a rough idea of what page of which Discworld book I was on.

Which, if Pulp Fiction doesn't play the same role in your life, doesn't tell you much about the film - the casual non-linearity, the structure of interlocking short stories, the interplay of dialogue and soundtrack, actor after big name actor turning in some of their finest work and Quentin Tarantino doing a particularly poor imitation of Quentin Tarantino, etc. I'm sorry about that, but it's all widely available online or by talking to anyone who has ever heard of Pulp Fiction. All you really need to know is that for all my nostalgia, I was actually surprised by how vital it still felt.

The thing is, though, I'm pretty sure something does play that role in your life. Or a few things, most likely. It's a response I'm fascinated by, the way we can build identity out of pop-cultural detritus, that has fed directly back into the type of culture I enjoy. Like Pulp Fiction, for example. Like most of Tarantino's work, it's a just-about-digested mix of all the films that fascinate him. It's telling that one of the main criticisms levelled at his work is that it's self-indulgent. Which is a criticism I'd lay firmly at the feet of this entry, too. But to that I say: so what? And hope someone's still reading.
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Friday, 14 October 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #12, Hot Fuzz

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"This relationship between men is one of the key tenets on which all of Pegg, Frost, and Wright’s work is built, along with the oft-cited pop-cultural obsession and the symmetrical structures of callbacks and foreshadowing which we’ll be looking at in a future post."

Ah yeah I did. Consider that foreshadowing, and this the callback. If we want to reach back even further, my review of Chris Nolan's Inception might be useful: I compared it to a Rubik's cube-style puzzle, or a clockwork-tight machine of interlocking pieces of plot/idea/dialogue. Hot Fuzz does all that - it's got a whole lot of guns on a whole mess of mantlepieces, the dialogue is full of repetitions and variations - but at the middle of that ticking machine of gears and pistons, it manages to stuff in a human heart.

(The heart being the relationship between Nicholas Angel and Danny Butterman. That'd be the romantic relationship between two straight men, then. Tick!)

I know it's generally considered second to Shaun of the Dead, and please understand that, as a film with The Fratellis on the soundtrack, my love comes hard-earned. But Hot Fuzz is an astoundingly well put-together piece of work. It feels crafted, like every decision was carefully thought through: the confident second album.

And it uses its structure for so many different purposes: first, most obviously, comedy. Take the swan, which evolves from the reversal of a classic Simpsons prank call (Mr P.I. Staker, it turns out, doesn't think his name is particularly funny) to a running sight gag. But, and here's the thing: it's also key to the action of the film. The swan turns out to be a vital element in winning the film's final 'boss fight', which feels natural - this is no cygnus ex machina - and funny. It's an effortless juggling of the film's two halves, the mundaneity of small-town boredom vs big Michael-Bayesque action.

It's also a good way to put the viewer inside Angel's much-discussed brain - which is tightly focused and trained, like a bureaucratic British Batman - as he tries to solve the mystery. First of all, everything is rigidly ordered, as it should be when your protagonist demands paperwork after a firefight. But it also gives the impression that clues are being laid, that we can solve this mystery. It is all there from the very start, and it's actually probably easier as a comedy to lay down each piece of the puzzle without them being noticed, because it's indistinguishable from the bits of set-up that will be played for laughs. (The solution to the mystery, incidentally, is probably the film's weakest element, because it feels so arbitrary; thinking about the film's political stance, though, it is rather more thematically satisfying.)

Meanwhile, it sets up a sense of place: the repeated references, a sign first, then a joke, to the model village which, of course, ends up as the setting for the big finale. Meanwhile, it's helping make the plot fit together and not collapse into total farce. Meanwhile, it's keeping a certain part of your brain occupied and entertained, the part of you that might have occasionally watched Spaced with the reference-explaining subtitles turned on... Tying it to last week's idea of films as music might be a callback too far, I suppose?

There are hundreds of other things to like. Timothy Dalton as the very obvious baddie, chewing so much scenery that of course he ends up ... well, chewing scenery. The way it takes a certain strain of very British, "you're not even from round here!" conservatism* as its villain, and places the 'hoodies' alongside the heroes. Nick Frost using his natural sweetness to completely sell the central romance. Count Buckules having his head exploded by a piece of masonry. The dozens of great British comedians and actors. The Iain Banks/Iain M Banks joke, which also makes me feel clever. The continued use of the smash-cut montages of the mundane: filling in paperwork, photocopying...

But the thing I always come back to is how well structured it all is. Like Inception, like Watchmen (not Zack Snyder's), Hot Fuzz is a film that rewards careful watching and rewatching by tickling that little part of your forebrain that tells you 'oh, I'm well clever!' for noticing. But it weaves this careful structure into something with as much heart as brains

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*DISCLAIMER: Note the small 'c'. Not in the political sense, friends who I've argued about the world of difference that capital letter means. I mean a genuine wish for things to remain in stasis.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Spelunky: An Oral History

Here you go: an oral history of my possibly-favourite-game-ever and definitely-most-written-about platformer Spelunky that tries to explain, through fictional interviews with the characters, everything you need to know about the game
Spelunker #1 (professional adventurer): Putting the faded photo in my pocket, I squeezed the whip at my side, and thought of her one last time. That's all it took to get me down here, beneath the surface of the world. Of course, it's different for everyone. Now, shh. That statue's a trap. You've got to time this just perfect--erkkk

Spelunker #23: I've never seen another spelunker. No bodies, even. Not a soul. It's almost as if – nah, that'd be impossible – as if there're an infinite number of caverns down here. But damn me if those caverns ain't full of good-lookin' dames.

Marion (damsel in distress): Just because this dress shows off my curves, doesn't mean I'm not up on my feminism. And frankly, the gender politics are appalling. These fellas'll use you as a shield as soon as rescue you. And then they expect a kiss? Don't even get me started on the Parlours.

Rudy (proprietor, Rudy's Kissing Parlour): Look; I provide a service. A man like that, big adventures on his mind, sometimes he just needs a kiss, eh?

Pancho (proprietor, Pancho's Speciality Shop): It's a dangerous business. But a man like me, knows how to specialise – capes, jetpacks, teleporters – there's big money in it.

Spelunker #72 (ex-adventurer, spending his retirement fused irrevocably into the scenery): ...the time I got a teleporter? Ah, I remember it fondly. Course, I probably should've looked where I was going a little better.

Ivan the Shopkeeper (proprietor, Ivan's Armoury): One of the buggers shot me! It's just not cricket; a man stocks a handy range of shotguns, down in the dark places, he shouldn't have to expect this yobbery.

Spelunker #99: By means we needn't go into, I acquired a shotgun. Deep in the belly of the beast with a handful of boomstick. I was invincible. Those blasted spiders melted into red mist before me. Then some old bearded bloke with a grudge – and worse, a shotgun of his own - was waiting for me by the exit. The rest was bloody history.

Jethro (professional tunnel man): Here I am, no-one to talk to, shovelling dirt. They're off having adventures with a girl over one shoulder. They're all addicts, if you ask me. Get what's coming to 'em.

Spelunker #118: They'll tell you it's all about greed. Don't listen. The gold, jewels, that little number that ticks up somewhere in your head, that's just window dressing. Why do so many of us do it? It's about seeing new places. And they're always new. People talk about travelling, broadening your horizons. Finding yourself? Try finding a bloody huge mutant psychic brain.

Spelunker #199: This was it: just a giant stone head between me and the big time. I dispatched it quick enough, right into the lava. A door opened. Glory! Except... I forgot to leave a way out. Sigh. I'll jump into the lava meself, then.

Olmac (giant stone head): Ummmg.

Spelunker #199: The afterlife turned out to be a lot of numbers carved into a rockface. And I wasn't even the highest score.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Project 52: The Aftermath

It's been two weeks since we wrapped up Project 52's coverage of the DC Comics relaunch. It didn't take long for us to start jonesing for more, and so we all got together in a dark corner of the internet, and laid out our thoughts on the relaunch, the comics, and the process of reading and reviewing a hell of a lot of comics. The results, heavily cut down to make them faintly readable, are produced below.
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How many of your titles will you be picking up next month, now you’re not reviewing them?
Michael: Batman and Wonder Woman. Snyder has a good take on Batman and I really want to see how he writes Bruce Wayne some more. I'm a Greek Mythology nut so I like that they're playing that up in Wonder Woman.
Alex: In my case.... Action Comics, because Grant Morrison is Grant Morrison and I want to know where he's going with it all. Swamp Thing, because it was brilliant and the art was sumptuous.
Oh, and probably Wonder Woman and Batman, though I might wait for the digital copies to drop in price after a month. With the exception of Swamp Thing, though, they're all just out of curiosity of what they'll do with it.
Bret: Animal Man and the Green Lantern one that I’ve already forgotten the name of. The one with Kyle Rayner [New Guardians]. I would also like to pick up Action Comics #1 as I never actually read it.
Tim: I think the only thing I'm going back to in singles will be Frankenstein, but I'll definitely pick up some in trades. Probably Aquaman, Wonder Woman (I'm a myth nut too) and Birds of Prey.
Oh - I might do singles for Stormwatch too, but that's more for affection for the characters than on the strength of the first issue, which looking back was probably weaker than I originally thought. And I'll steal Bret's Animal Man and New Guardians.

Will you be buying anything when it comes out in collected trades?

Alex: I'll probably pick up the trade of Batwoman, and maybe Justice League Dark if it gets good reviews.
Bret: To be honest, now that I think about it I'm probably going to wait till they're all out in trades. I've just never been a fan of singles really. I wanna read the whole story at once, not in parts.
Tim: Writing for the trade is a real problem that this relaunch highlighted. It feels like few people know how to write a compelling single issue anymore.
Alex: My non-comics-reading friend Geoff was asking about that from reading the reviews, actually. He's looking for comics recommendations at the moment, but we totally put him off the idea of reading single issues.
Michael: I really think this relaunch would have been stronger if the first issues felt complete and managed to hook people.


Relatively speaking, we’re all non-DC readers: what preconceptions did you have about what makes DC comics different, and did this impact on your enjoyment?
Michael: I think DC is better known for their cosmic stuff now than some of the other companies. Marvel has the street-level characters and DC has the Gods, and those who live amongst the stars
Bret: DC for me is now summed up by the idea of great powers and some flimsy characters behind them, like we got back in the four-colour days.
Alex: My opinion of DC has always been tied up with the idea of convoluted continuity we mentioned in a lot of the reviews. For example, I’ve also been rereading Final Crisis, and while I enjoyed it, I still have no real idea what's going on or who half the characters are.
Tim: It varied from title to title. The two Legion titles were almost completely incomprehensible to a newbie, but I thought something like Aquaman did well by relying on general public perception of the character, rather than lots of continuity nods.
Michael: I actually think my very vague perception of Deadman hindered my reading of it in a different way. I was slightly aware of the character from his appearances in the animated DC Universe and yet I was still put off by the amount of time the book spent telling me the new status quo.
Tim: It was a tricky balancing act as far as status quo and continuity goes - trying to make things accessible to new readers without alienating old ones, and explaining how things sit in the new relaunch without turning issue one into a flood of exposition. That ties back into the whole 'done in one' first issue thing - if you give yourself one issue to hook people in, they're more likely to stay if Issue #2 is explaining the character's place in the new universe for all the continuity nerds out there.
[Ten minutes are spent grumbling about continuity, the minutiae of how everything fits together DC's new 'Five Years' timeline, and suggesting DC might already be writing themselves into another Crisis.]
Bret: ...Ultimately though (and I feel this is something DC just doesn't understand) story is more important in a comic than continuity. If you can tell a good tale, it shouldn't matter if it lines up with something that happened 30 years ago. That said, there is that weird woman in red. I take it you all spotted her? It looks like she appears in every issue.
Tim: Yeah. Maybe a year down the line, she'll have a miniseries just explaining how all the continuity lines up. I'm sure it will be riveting reading.
Michael: Seems like she might be there for DC to take this all back if they need to. An escape strategy.

What were your first impressions, and what do you think will be the lasting legacy of this relaunch?
Bret: When I heard about the New 52, I wasn't excited. I just rolled my eyes.
Michael: I honestly thought it could be a good idea in theory. If they stick to it. I think it's one of the best chances comics have ever had to bring in new readers, but after the first month it feels like business as usual.
Tim: We've been talking about a hard reboot, what with the Women in Red and all, but I think it's more likely that once the new sales shine is off, things will slowly slide back to how they've always been. For example, social crusade Superman will slowly turn back into regular old Superman.
Bret: The Superman I read (the non-Action Comics one) just felt like regular old Supes to me
Tim: It's a great example of how they've mussed up to me. You have a great opportunity to create an interesting new spin on the character, but you have to have another title just to keep the fans who don't want change happy.
Alex: I think this is just the nature of comics. It's prismatic. Ultimately, you've got two people simultaneously writing the same character. Maybe working off the same notes, but they can't respond. So a fresh start kind of can't work with two titles.

On a more positive note: What were your favourite things about the relaunch?
Tim: Frankenstein! And Aquaman!
Michael: I can be positive! We have a good Animal Man book. And Swamp Thing! I haven't read Frankenstein but it's great DC are publishing it, and I want to read it. And Demon Knights and Justice League Dark are books that I want to check out.
Alex: I'll say this. It all felt more like an 'event' than anything else I've experienced in comics. Much more than a summer crossover or whatever. (Though, at least partially because I did this with you guys...)
Bret: My favourite thing about the relaunch was doing these reviews. Because if it wasn't for this, I wouldn't have read a lot of the weirder titles that I did, like my man Ommy's for instance, and I probably would have skipped Blue Beetle, Aquaman and Animal Man.
Tim: Basically, the times when they took the opportunity to put a new spin on a character, or shine a light on an interesting corner of the universe. It's great that people like Swamp Thing and OMAC and Animal Man all get books, and that thanks to the relaunch, they have a much better chance of finding an audience. I definitely get the impression they are trying to produce something for everyone, which is admirable.
...Sorry - everyone who isn't a woman
Alex: ZING!
Bret: As funny as that is, I'm not sure it's fair. Batgirl and Supergirl (costume aside) had some very good titles.
Michael: Obviously everyone is different and people like having a character they can relate to and see themselves in. Hence why diversity in comics on all levels would be handy.
Alex: But ... does 'fiction for women' necessarily have to be 'fiction starring/featuring women' What DC had the opportunity to produce here was something like... Lost. Which was largely male-orientated in its cast, let's be honest, but appealed to both genders. My point is, it's not the gender of the character it features, it's the huge fat roadblack that is that horribly leery Red Hood comic Tim reviewed.
Tim: It does feel like the biggest story to come out of the relaunch (besides the fact they were relaunching) was the awfulness of Red Hood and Catwoman.
Michael: What? Aren't people annoyed that they got rid of Deadshot's moustache?
Tim: It doesn't create a good impression for women who are interesting in picking up new titles because of this relaun... THEY GOT RID OF DEADSHOT'S MOUSTACHE!?! SHUT DOWN EVERYTHING!
Bret: ...Deadshot?
Alex: (The story of the entire relaunch there, in four lines.)
Have you been buying the digital comics? Are day-and-date digital comics the future?
Michael: Yeah, on iPad. I've been too busy to get to the store and yet I've been able to buy those digital back issues and the new issue of Schism. I will say one thing about digital comics: they can't cope with a double page spread. Otherwise I am perfectly happy to read comics digitally.
Bret: I don't think I'm ever going to download comics. I just like owning the book. It's the smell, and the experience. It's why I like the cinema and don't just watch movies at home for half the price. You start taking away from that as an experience and you'll lose my custom.
Tim: I haven't really looked into digital comics because I prefer the physical object, be it floppy or trade, and I have access to a reasonable LCS, but I still recognise that it's an important step, and a whole new market to access. It's a lot easier to get people to pick up Batwing #1 when they don't have to venture into a grotty basement that smells of despair to get it.
Michael: I like collecting comics, I like flicking through comics and I love how trades look on my shelf. But I am running out of space. Those five books I downloaded last night are not taking up space.
Tim: I think it somewhat taps into the collector/fetishist aspect of geekdom, just like how some people still prefer vinyl.
Alex: The thing about single issues is, and I think it's what DC especially survives on, it's the soap opera element. Like, there's this world where stuff's constantly going on, and you want to keep up on a weekly basis.
Tim: Yeah - I think that's why I kept up with X-Men far into it getting sucky.
Alex: And digital comics give me a way of doing that without falling back on Wikipedia, or flicking through in a shop, or even more illegal methods...

So: it's 6 months ago. The four of us are put in charge of DC. What do we do differently with this relaunch?
Bret: Actually, can I stop you there? First off: why would we even want a relaunch?
Alex: Okay, going on what we've said earlier:
-it gives us publicity
-it gives us a reason to make a big thing of going digital
-we can launch some more 'out there' titles, genrewise
-some people are stunned when faced with part 543 of a story
-my girlfriend didn't know they still made new superhero comics
Tim: I think a relaunch done well can do all the things Alex mentioned and more. It's a risk worth taking, and a ballsy move on DC's part.
Michael: And, you don't need to undo everything. As we have seen, we'd get to pick and choose. And most importantly, those comics still exist.
Bret: How about this? We do what DC actually did. We have a story staggered through time and tell flash backs but we sit down first and we work out EXACTLY when everything is meant to happen. And then, for the readers who really care about continuity we produce a timeline, or a book only dealing with where everything fits in over all, like a reader's guide to the new universe.
Tim: I think that approach would work, as long as you don't make the new timeline the focus of the first issues. You make the Issue #1s one-offs to hook people in: done-in-one stories that explain who the characters are and why they matter. Then you explore your past as you tell further stories.

Was the relaunch a success? Did the titles feel like the start of a new universe? Did it take advantage of all the opportunities it had?
Michael: They certainly sold those comic books.
Bret: As an opportunity to attract new readers to some titles they maybe previously wouldn't have read, I feel it's been a success. Also, DC really does feel like they've brought out a book for everyone. However, as a relaunch and a chance to retell their main stories it's failed and will fall back on it's old ways sooner rather than later. I just hope it'll be at least 10 years before they feel the need to rewrite this new universe they've created... again. But I don't think that'll be the case as even after the first issues there are already continuity and timeline problems.
Alex: For me personally, I feel like this relaunch has been a qualified success. My DC reading list generally consists of however many titles Grant Morrison is writing at that moment, but with this I've finally picked up some stuff I've been hearing buzz on forever - J.H. Williams on Batwoman, Scott Snyder's work. I even read a Geoff Johns comic.
On top of that, I've been reading a lot of comics journalism on the relaunch and I've been picking up trades of older DC stuff (aforementioned Final Crisis, the original Justice League International). But I think I'm being optimistic because of how much of a pleasure Project 52 has been. Even through bad issues (and there have been a few), I've been fascinated by the shape of the thing as a whole, and the way it feels like a potential game-changer. But ... in six months... who knows?
Tim: DC had a great opportunity here, to tell new interesting stories and make a big inroads into gaining new readers. But the relaunch overall feels rushed and lacking organisation, so the success came down to the individual titles and their creative teams, which is always going to be varied. What we need is CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN.
Michael: Like Harvey Dent?
Tim: Exactly.
Michael: We wanted Harvey Dent but the relaunch we got was more like Two Face. Or something.
Tim: We got the hero we need, not the hero we deserve. Or something. Then again, it's only comics. Why so serious?
Bret: Who wants to see DC do a magic trick? They can make 70 years worth of continuity disappear! TA-DA!
Tim: The Second Law of Comics Thermodynamics: Any critical discussion of the art form will eventually devolve into Batman puns.
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Friday, 7 October 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #13, Jackie Brown

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Jackie Brown: the third Tarantino film of five, the one people tend to forget. Naturally, it’s one I love dearly. How is it different from all the rest? Well, it marks the moment before Tarantino dived into the self-referential genre stuff, and is a bit slower and smoother than the rest of his work, and I think it’s generally considered his most mature work. But I don’t want to talk about that stuff. Just watch it, it’s great, and if you like Tarantino you’re really missing out, okay?

I want to talk about music. That means, I realise, talking about one of the things that doesn’t differentiate it from Tarantino’s 0ther work: after all, he’s always been handy with a soundtrack. It’s easy to rattle off a list: Little Green Bag, Misirlou, Battle Without Honour or Humanity, Cat People... But this is a whole other level.

Because it’s never just been about the music. It’s about how Tarantinos entwines them with the film, to make something bigger. I could talk about the opening, where we track, following Jackie as she walks through an airport to the sound of Across 110th Street, and how it tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the character or how it should be one of the most iconic scenes in recent cinema.

We could reminisce about Strawberry Letter 23, how its opening is one of the most magical minutes in all of music, and how beautifully it complements a scene of Samuel L. Jackson preparing to stone-cold murder one of his friends. How the gliding vocals as he pulls those gloves on develops that Stuck in the Middle/torture juxtaposition into something far more subtle and sinister.

I could go on like that all day. I really could. But I want to tell you my latest theory. We’ve already considered Kill Bill’s novelistic chapters, but I think Jackie Brown is the perfect illustration of how musical Tarantino’s work is. Obviously the use of songs, yes, but: the way the greater plot so often gets sidelined in favour of dipping and peaking tension. The rhythm of dialogue. The non-linear style that returns to certain moments, chorus-like. The focus on Moments.

There’s a way of looking at music that’s well expressed in the work of Tom Ewing, and one I tend towards when thinking/talking/writing about music, that puts the focus on these individual Moments. You know: the thrilling peaks in the middle of those repeating structures, that demand your attention every time a song plays. It might introduce a new idea, or put the emphasis on one instrument, or maybe a production trick that tweaks the way everything sounds.

In Tarantino, this manifests as those quotable moments of dialogue (“Our ass used to be beautiful”, the AK-47 speech, 90% of the things Sam Jackson says in this film) and little stylistic quirks (the ubiquitous ‘trunk’ shoot from inside a car’s boot, the use of white text on black titlecards). There are valleys – and Jackie Brown is a long film, so be prepared for a whole lot of valley – that provide the rhythm, and then layered on top of that, and on top of the push and pull of these characters and the constant threat of them killing each other, are these beautiful moments of style. People criticise Tarantino for being style over substance. I say, style is the substance. Have you never listened to a pop song?

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Saturday, 1 October 2011

Project 52, Week Five: Comparing notes on Justice League Dark

And so we find ourselves at the end of our little adventure at last. Five weeks, four gentlemen of the blogosphere, 52 comics. Somehow, we reviewed 'em all. So, to celebrate, let's finish off with a double review: Alex vs Bret on...
Justice League Dark #1
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Mikel Janin

Bret's Review:

You know that feeling you get? When you’re surrounded by cool people talking about cool things and you don’t have any idea what’s being said but you know you’d better keep damn quiet and pray you don’t get asked a question, because you know full well if you open your mouth you’ll sound like a fool? [deep breath after long sentence] ...That’s the feeling I got from Justice League Dark.

I feel like this comic was better than good but I honestly don’t know why. I’ll start with the bits I fully understood. The Justice League, after having investigated some kooky goings on, have narrowed down their suspects to the Enchantress who then swiftly defeats them with magic. Against Batman’s will, Zatanna decides magic is her thing and so steps up to deal with the threat. That’s all we see of that side of the story and it’s only 6 pages worth. The rest of the time is spent introducing this new other team who I should imagine will join forces to defeat the foe which the Justice League could not.

HOWEVER! I don’t know who most of these new guys are. DC have taken a stance of “our characters are so bad ass they don’t need introducing” and normally I’d have a problem with that but here I get the feeling that it’s my fault I don’t know who anyone is! As I know characters such as Deadman, Shade the Changing Man and John Constantine have all had their own solo titles I feel like DC have essentially put all these guys together in one book. And the nerd part of me that was obsessed with collecting all 150 Pokemon LOVES the fact that they’re doing that. It’s what I loved about the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics. But here I don’t know who anyone is (except for John Constantine who I now know is a 100% English stereotype, complete with use of the words “geezer”, “bloody” and “bollocks”)

Did any of this make the book less fun for me? No. I actually really liked it. The scene with the June Moons on the motorway really made me sit up and pay attention. The characters first appearances were handled nicely as well. Even though they didn’t give a full explanation as to who everyone was or what they could do, I got the sense that it was deliberate which I’m okay with as long as it suits the story. It’s got some great art work to boot and every scene has some stunning backgrounds.

Overall, it was a very good book, let down only by the fact that it had so much content that it couldn’t fit an entire story into its first issue. There have been worse comic crimes by far.

Rating: B-

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Alex's Review:

I guess it’s probably a sign of just how many comics I’ve read of this New 52, but everything is beginning to meld into one. It happened with The Dark Knight, and now it’s happening with this. Odd bits and pieces of it reminded me of other issues, but I couldn’t tell which ones, exactly.

Justice League Dark is basically equal parts Demon Knights and Swamp Thing. Bad global things are afoot, outside of the standard Justice League jurisdiction. Bad magical things.

And so a collection of weird, magicky characters - drawn largely from the Vertigo stable - have to team up and sort it all out. Most of whom get the spotlight for a page or two, which establishes them nicely. And… that’s about it really. All the pieces are set (more than Justice League #1, but less than Animal Man #1, for anyone playing along at home). There are a few nice ideas, especially in how the magic threats manifest themselves, that feel more neatly integrated than Demon Knights’ ever did. The proper Justice League (the one we haven’t seen come together yet, back in the actual Justice League title) fail to fight off a swarm of rotting teeth in a series of panels that heavily recall Swamp Thing’s horror scenes…

This is the last comic I’m reviewing for Project 52, and it’s late at night and I’m tired. All of these might explain why everything feels so amorphous, so melted into one. But it’s started to happen, and while Justice League Dark is a good comic, it’s unmistakably a victim of this. There’s nothing - except Janin’s Irving-esque digital art - that makes it stand clearly out from the rest of the fantasy/horror-tinted titles I’ve read. It doesn’t help that two of its characters are shared with other titles - DC Universe Presents’ Deadman, Demon Knights’ Madame Xanadu…

Already, to gather material for this review, I’m flicking repeatedly back through it. Already I can feel the onset of: Now, which one was it? With all the creepy stuff… The one with the green dude? Maybe? No? I’m absolutely sure it had Superman in it…

Rating: B-
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This has been Project 52. Thank you, and good night.

Project 52, Week Five (Teen Titans/Hawkman/Dark Knight/Firestorm/Superman)

And so we near the final curtain. Reviews #47-51 of Project 52 include the new rather garish-looking Teen Titans, Tim taking a look at the relaunch's two most ridiculously named titles, and close on the title that Imogen "Smallville-fancier" Dale said was the only one she'd be interested in reading about - Superman #1.
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Teen Titans #1
Written by Scott Lobdell
Art by Brett Booth
Reviewed by Bret

The first word in the comic summed it up for me. “Meh”. It was okay, Teen Titans didn’t do anything wrong, it was just very average. I think Teen Titans is probably feeling the wrath I’ve been building up whilst reading a lot of DC’s new 52 because SO MANY of them commit the same crime. And it’s not a big crime, but when you add all those little crimes from all the separate stories it starts to become like Kid Flash’s middle name. A problem.

See, on the cover of Teen Titans #1 there are quite clearly seven characters. How many do we meet in issue 1? Four. One of whom is only on the last page as what I feel is a desperate attempt to say “look! We do have more coming next issue! Spend money here again!”. But I’m sorry, that attitude isn’t good enough if you’re going to relaunch all your major titles purely because someone like me, who is reading A LOT OF THEM, is going to pick and choose the best of the bunch and go back and buy those and ONLY those. That means you can’t hint that the good stuff in your comic is coming later, you need to show the good stuff NOW because you are in competition with all the other new comics and I can’t afford to continue to read them all.

SO! That’s what let Teen Titans down. We get a good explanation as to who Red Robin is, a bit of an explanation as to who Kid Flash is and less again for Wonder Girl, who made it quite clear that her name isn’t actually Wonder Girl… but never told us what it really was. So like it or lump it sister, you’re now getting called “Wonder Girl” from here on out.

The art was nice and really did of good job of the action sequences which in turn helped to avoid large blocks of text when introducing characters. But again, quite frankly it’s not enough to make up for the lack of plot. Don’t get me wrong a lot happens but I feel like I just watched the first half hour of Mission: Impossible and then had Tom Cruise turn to me and ask what I thought. As Ramona said to Scott, it’ll sound great when it’s finished.

Overall, as what feels to me like a work in progress I honestly don’t feel I can rate this comic. I’m sure it’ll be much better once it gets underway BUT they chose not to do that so I’m stuck giving Teen Titans a C. It’s a shame, because I’m sure there’s a great story that could have been told in 20 pages, but as I won’t be coming back I guess I’ll never get to read it.

Rating: C

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The Savage Hawkman #1
Written by Tony S. Daniel
Art by Philip Tan
Reviewed by Tim

Hawkman, like Aquaman, is one of the B-list DC heroes who stood to benefit greatly from the relaunch. While semi-recognisable to the vaguely-comics-aware public, he suffered from slightly goofy powers, a horrendously complicated origin and backstory, and a terrible costume. While Aquaman addressed the preconceptions that people may have had about the character and simplified the origin to the essential core, The Savage Hawkman instead adds a new layer onto the character and complicates his mythology even further. And while Aquaman’s costume remains about as bad as it always was, Hawkman’s has got even worse.

The issue starts engagingly, with Carter Hall dragging the Hawkman armour out to the woods to bury it, and once and for all say goodbye to life as a hero. Needless to say, it doesn’t go as planned, and he finds himself with new armour that appears from underneath his skin (how very Iron Man) and fighting an ancient alien symbiote thing (how very Venom). It’s a decent enough gimmick to make the character feel a bit more relevant and able to compete with the other heavy-hitters of the DC universe, but a relaunch should be about stripping a character back to their core and finding what works, not piling new information on. To writer Tony S. Daniel’s credit, we’re not made to feel like we have to know much of Hawkman’s background, but by making his “Nth Metal” armour such a key component of the story, you’re already saddling us with assumed knowledge.

The art by Philip Tan is gorgeous, with a painterly style that matches the tone of the comic very well, lending it an old-school adventure feel that works with the idea of Carter Hall as a heroic, Indiana Jones-style archaeologist, and Tan even manages to make Hawkman’s armour seem threatening and aesthetically pleasing. However, the costume, like the comic itself, has taken something that more or less functioned and rather than explore what actually worked, has decided to instead just add a load of extra stuff on top (A shield that’s a claw! And his axe should also be a mace! More spikes! More explosions!)

And Morphicius is a terrible name for a villain. He sounds like a subspecies of climbing shrub.

Rating: B-

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Batman - The Dark Knight#1
Written by David Finch & Paul Jenkins
Art by David Finch
Reviewed by Alex

Did you read last week’s Batman #1, as reviewed by the eternally handsome Michael Eckett?

If so, I can save you $2.99, right here and now. Loosen the staples holding that issue together, switch the pages around a bit and you’ve pretty much got Batman: Dark Knight #1.

That’s not exactly a criticism, but… Look, both comics open with captions of Batman narrating a little speech at us which turn out to be an actual speech being given by Bruce Wayne at a fundraiser where he’s then stopped by a character who could be a new ally or foe. There’s also a fight in Arkham Asylum against a multitude of escaped supervillains.

Like I said, it’s not a criticism. It’s just (I presume) a stunning coincidence. And, like Detective Comics #1, show the boxes that Batman stories feel they need to tick off. However, it does serve to highlight how Dark Knight compares to Snyder’s Batman. Those events I’ve mentioned make up almost the whole of this issue, but in Batman, they were only half of the story: we also got to see Batman’s relationship with the police and the assorted Robins, some detective work, some new gadgets and the Batcave.

So, it ticks off significantly less of those boxes. Which is a ridiculous comparison by which to judge a comic, I realise, and I actually didn’t enjoy Batman as much as the rest of the internet seems to have (C+, probs). But it shows up Dark Knight as a little sloppy. There, Batman’s speechy captions provided an interesting device; here, they’re borderline incomprehensible. (Fear is a cannibal that eats from both ends? Seriously?) There, the last page reveal provided a tug to buy the next issue; here it’s … well, borderline incomprehensible again.

Honestly, I went into this issue with a ready-cooked bias. David Finch, whose art I don’t really enjoy, also writing? I expected to hate it. And I didn’t. Finch’s art still isn’t my bag, but everything works just fine… I’ve just read a few too many Batman comics this month that have tried to hit the exact same series of notes, and it’s starting to get a little fatiguing.

Rating: C-

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The Fury of Firestorm #1
Written by Gail Simone & Ethan Van Sciver
Art by Yildiray Cinar
Reviewed by Tim

And the award for the clumsiest title in the New 52 goes to…Firestorm. Or to give it the full title, The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men. The title is sort of indicative of the comic itself – a little unwieldy, and with a few too many levels to it. There’s the vaguely religious mercenaries, the corporate conspiracy, a slightly gratuitous level of torture, the ham-fisted attempts at addressing racial politics, plus a superhero origin story with two narrators. The issue feels like such a jumble of plot, set-up and thematic elements that the central core concept – two contrasting characters with similar powers who can combine into a third form – gets lost beneath all the other elements fighting for your attention. Whether the central concept actually works is difficult to tell – at the moment it feels a little Captain Planet-esque, and the third form, introduced on the final page, doesn’t strike me as particularly interesting. The two clashing protagonists, Ronnie Raymond and Jason Rusch, come across as more worthy of note.

The book’s attempts to delve into race are brave but feel clumsy, and need more space to breath than they are given here. Rusch, who tries to illustrate to Ronnie the racial inequalities that surround him in the most aggressive, unhelpful way possible, strikes me as a bit of a blowhard. This may be intentional (he later boasts about how clever he is, and how Ronnie couldn’t possibly understand what’s going on) and it’s perfectly valid characterisation for the smarter character to be egotistical, blunt and have poor people skills (for example, Hugh Laurie as House) but when you then have that character as the voice of some reasonable points about white privilege in modern America, you muddle the message somewhat. While a debate between a sheltered but well-meaning Ronnie and Jason, who has legitimate arguments but is abrasive and rude, could make for a fascinating comic given the room to establish the characters more fully and let the discussion play out, jamming it into such a tangle of plotting does a disservice to the ideas under debate.

It’s a shame, because the book feels at its best during these discussions. When the mercenaries appear at the school, and Ronnie and Jason are transformed into Firestorm/s, both the art and the writing seem to lose something and devolve into lots of shouting and the comic equivalent of CGI explosions. Having read Aquaman, it has hammered home how important characterisation and tone are in these first issues, towering over plot in terms of what matters and what makes a good book. Firestorm gets it completely wrong in this regard, piling more and more plot elements on what could have been a solid spine for the title until it buckles under the weight.

Rating: C-

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Superman #1
Written by George Perez
Art by George Perez & Jesus Merino
Reviewed by Bret

Well well well. Just as I’m done bitching that so many of DC’s new 52 have only told us half a story, along comes Superman to save the day. (Spoilers ahead.)

You know what, I’ve never really liked Superman comics. It’s not the character himself; I really liked Smallville for instance. No, it’s more the setting. It doesn’t matter how many references to modern day they make, it stills feels like it’s set in the 1950s to me. And even though this issue still has a twinge of the past about it, I’m glad to say they seem to be dealing with modernising their universe. First up, the Daily Planet building gets ripped down and rebuilt into something looking more like Stark Tower. Secondly there’s a lot more talk about how a newspaper can’t cut it in today's world and so instead we see reporters racing to be the first to get their article online. But most importantly, it’s the way people behave. Superman in his first issue is a bit of a whiny bitch. He’s not happy that the Daily Planet is being bought out by a bigger news company and starts an argument with Lois about it. But really there’s subtext because what ol’ Clarky boy is actually upset about is that the Man of Steel doesn’t have the balls to tell the girl he likes how he feels about her to her face. Something that stings all the more when his super-hearing lets him know what’s going on between her and another man behind closed doors. Brilliant stuff, that I can actually relate to!

The story itself has a definite beginning, middle and end which is SOOO refreshing to read in a first issue. And even though at times the plot felt so fantastical that is was starting to leave us normal humans behind, it would manage to somehow keep it grounded to a human perspective. Even if it was just by putting normal people in the firing line and dealing with the cost to human life when a couple of aliens battle high above the city. And I know that not everything has to be about human understanding and that Superman should absolutely be about the fantastic but at the same time, if I can’t measure the danger he’s facing to a scale I understand then the threat loses its tension, like an ant worrying about the global economy. Superman finds a balance, though, to show both the fantastical and make it relatable. The action sequences for instance are narrated by tomorrow's news headlines looking back at what happened at the time. A little confusing to start with but actually a very clever way of making you feel more involved.

Overall I liked it. It’s true to say that I prefer Clark Kent as a character to Superman but I also appreciate that sometimes you just need to punch a giant fire monster in the face.

Rating: A
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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.