Monday, 31 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: TIM'S PERSON OF 2012

Between his blog, his mix CDs, and his all-round lovableness, Tim 'Trivia Lad' Maytom is my pick for Person of the Year, every year.
Fortunately for you, he's too modest to write a thousand words on himself, and always seems to have his own opinion on the matter anyway. His Person of the Year has been a fixture on this site for three years now, and in past years has talked up Amy Poehler and Donald Glover... But who will it be this time? 
Let's find out.

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Once again, my choice for Person of the Year revolves around someone from the world of comedy, but as this year’s choice would say, comedy is a ministry, and it can have a tremendous impact on how we view the world. Pete Holmes is an American stand-up comedian, and a very funny one at that.

His album, Impregnated with Wonder, is filled with brilliant observations and manages to combine a whimsical sense of fun with real human honesty. He’s appeared on various talk shows and Comedy Central specials, and this year recorded some pilot episodes of a talk show that would follow Conan O’Brien’s show on TBS (this hasn’t aired yet, and is still waiting for confirmation over whether it’s been picked up, but is still an impressive achievement), but the real reason he’s my Person of the Year is for his podcast on the Nerdist network, You Made It Weird.
“I’m thinking about getting off of Facebook and Twitter, all of that, and just signing up for a service that every 30 minutes texts me the phrase ‘You’re Not Alone’.”

You Made It Weird started out with a very loose interview format that revolved around “weird things” Holmes knew about the guests, who tended to be other comedians from the LA comedy scene, but evolved very quickly into a more wide-ranging discussion that tended to focus on three areas: comedy, sex and God. The guests interviewed Holmes as much as he interviewed them and his honesty about various aspects of his life, from his youth as an evangelical Christian to his experiments with becoming a “[physical intimacy] person”, via his divorce from his wife, is both rare and infectious.

We live in an age when everything we do is shared on the internet, which creates an odd mix of openness and image management in most people. Holmes bypasses this by moving beyond the 140-character limit and getting into deeper conversations that last long enough to find recurring themes and patterns in people’s lives (the average episode length is about 90 minutes and longer episodes get up to two-and-a-half hours). He is remarkably unguarded in how he presents his thoughts, and this in turn encourages his guests to be the same.
“This is a weird little part of your life, isn’t it? Feels like we’re snowed in together. There’s only one bathroom and there’s so many of us! ‘What do we do? Put on a show! Beats getting to know each other, right?’ It sure does.”
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Holmes’ approach to religion and spirituality follows the same approach as his discussions of his personal life – honest and infinitely curious. His guests span from the strongly atheist to the deeply spiritual (his talk with Duncan Trussell gets into some truly esoteric areas) and Holmes himself claims that he can believe everything from a godless universe to one where every action has meaning and purpose. There’s a very open-minded, non-judgemental approach to talking about faith, and a profound acceptance that not really knowing the truth is inevitable, but thinking about these ideas is important.

The ultimate strength of the podcast, and by extension Holmes’ comedy, is that you are listening to someone smart who has accepted that he doesn’t have all the answers about faith, relationships and life explore these issues with equally smart people, all of whom happen to be hilarious. I listen to a great number of podcasts at work and You Made It Weird is the one that gets me the most funny looks for suddenly bursting into giggles.

The weightiest subjects are always going to be the most fertile ground for comedy, and Holmes isn’t afraid to dig into the most profound questions there are. He has a child-like glee and enthusiasm for the strangeness that reveals itself when people start opening up about what really drives them and what’s important to them, and it results in some achingly funny but deeply thoughtful conversations.

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE MUSIC OF 2012

[Now with a handy Spotify playlist]
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If you have spent any time drinking with me in the latter half of this year, I've probably bemoaned that 2012 and I haven't clicked musically. And not for lack of trying – apart from clawing at friend's sleeves and demanding recommendations, the workday mix of Spotify, This is My Jam, and finally discovering BBC 6Music should've given me plenty of chances to dig up stuff I'd dig.
There's been plenty I liked, but not much I fell in love with. With some notable exceptions, of course.

Notable exceptions
Looking back at the year, two pop singles stand out – Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe, and Taylor Swift's We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. They're sleek colossi of purest pop. Songs for dancing, for pretending you're in a pop video to. They are, of course, filled with some of the most perfect Moments of 2012.

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is absolutely overstuffed with them – extra yeahs, switched intonations, the spoken asides. “Like, ever.” The way Taylor inserts a series of full stops in “Said. You. Needed. Space” and immediately follows it up with a fourth wall-breaking “what?”. The last bit is a raised eyebrow to her audience – can you believe this guy? – and though the song's “you” is the (ex-ex-ex)boyfriend, you get the impression she's talking to her mates here. The eye-rolling sneer of “some indie record that's much cooler than mine”, and the layered-over laugh that follows. 
It's all put together to ensure you never get bored of its simple repeating chorus, that constant machine-gun punchline. The song itself comes off as slightly insecure, trying to convince the listener, which is just perfectly right given what it's about.
There are moments when another Taylor breaks in, impatient to hammer the point home. The song is constantly rushing forward, desperate to get to the second listen, the third, so much so that it forgets that the rest of the time it's trying to convince you this is live, individual and performed just to you, because that'll get you on side, right? True to her country music past (which, just FYI, I am actually very fond of) Taylor's voice breaks and cracks, with occasional moments of show-offery. At the song's end, the music drops out a second early, so Taylor's voice can plant its flag one last time – a live outro if ever I heard one.
By comparison, Call Me Maybe is much more controlled. It's confident it knows how to push the right buttons, and it does.
For its Moments, it mostly goes to stuff built into the structure of the song – the slow build of its opening, into the glitter-confetti explosion of the first chorus. The mid-song verse tumble of words, rushing past with no time for breath or line breaks, especially next to the sharp punctuation of each line of the chorus – that violiny stab, which is a Moment in itself. Turning up the drumbeat for the final couple of choruses. Every single time the volume peaks.
And if we're talking about outros, listen to the way the song's close just melts out of existence, a trick last played on Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River. It knows it's a pop record, and wants to remind you of that fact, but it's also a big 'Game Over' screen. PLAY AGAIN?
That's pure confidence (of course you will), and just like the slight self-doubt of We Are Never...'s delivery, it fits the subject. Jepsen makes it clear she knows all the other boys want her, so why wouldn't this one? 
It's interesting because the pop archetype it's tapping into – the fancying from afar song, so often the unrequited love song – is often the preserve of the boy looking nervously at his shoes. 
Here, the consummation isn't a foregone conclusion, but the power is undeniably in Jepsen's hands. She's a force of sexy nature.
Honestly, it could be creepy with the gender roles reversed. Instead it's an excellent bit of female gaze (see also: the video's ripped abs moment). While most chart-bothering songs seek for new ways to tell a girl her tits look nice, her ass is perter than average, Jepsen delights in little thrilling details – those ripped jeans, skin was showing – which feel more like the marks of real human sexuality. And healthy sexuality too: there's no shame here, no debasement.
Ultimately, I think it's telling that there's no question mark at the end of the song's title. There's only question to ask, of both the listener and seducee: WHERE D'YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING, BABY?

Dancing like a mutha
I used to dislike dancing, at least in public, and not without reason: my body is clumsy, all elbows, and has little sense of rhythm. But as I get older, and have less and less opportunities to dance, it's just another embarrassment I've learned to slough off.
The most formative musical experiences I've had this year have all involved dancing – Grimes' Oblivion pulling me into a warehouse in Ljubljana and setting off a night of furious dancing and repeatedly losing my friends. Atta Girl in Birmingham back in March, scribbled requests on my hands and being held aloft to Heaven is a Place on Earth. Various points throughout Sam Lewis' wedding. But most of all, despite it being a comics event (and the best one in the UK), Thought Bubble in Leeds.
At the mid-con party, I was the first one on the dancefloor, along with Dance-Comrade Tim Maytom, and we stuck there until it had filled, and they'd played Call Me Maybe twice, and it was triumphant.
But being quiet means DJs can take the opportunity to play songs you'd never heard before, or only in the confines of your bedroom, and getting to test them on a live dancefloor.
Especially, I'm thinking of Lies by Chvrches – which, it turns out, kicks and stomps in all the right places for dancing to. I liked what I'd heard previously, but I woke up the next morning obsessed, and spent a month tracking down every song, live cover and demo I could.
Looking back at his setlist, I find the person responsible for this was Jamie McKelvie – one half of the team behind music-is-magic comics masterpiece Phonogram – and that the song immediately preceding it was Poliça's Dark Star. Both songs are as coldly beautiful as I've come to expect from McKelvie music. 
I quickly started filing both bands alongside Purity Ring, due largely to the fact they all feature women with beautiful voices being fed through distortion. Together, their stuff – Poliça and Purity Ring both have albums, Give Up The Ghost and Shrines respectively, but Chvrches are still just an assortment of mp3s on the internet – have made up a large chunk of my listening habits this year.
A short list of songs from 2012 I'd love the opportunity to dance to
-Tears by HEALTH, from their soundtrack to Max Payne 3
-Gabriel by Joe Goddard is the best thing anyone from Hot Chip has ever released. I've since discovered that it actually came out 18 months ago, but it got played so often on 6Music in the latter half of the year that I'm considering it a 2012 song
-Your Love, Your Drums/You Know You Like It by AlunaGeorge, another pair of 6Music bangers which are so similar they're joined at the gyrating hip
-Anything from the TNGHT EP
-Pretty much all of Japandroids' Celebration Rock, which finally clicked last week while running through the dark streets of my hometown
-I Love It by Icona Pop – the year's greatest slice of shouty Eurotrashy bratpop
-Mama Told Me by Big Boi. Speaking of which...
Meanwhile, over in my limited worldview of hip-hop
There was a point at the start of the year where hip-hop was the only music I was really listening to,  but 2012 hasn't really been the Year of Rap I'd expected.
I never quite managed to get into the El-P and Killer Mike albums, both of which have been cropping up all over the place in Best of 2012 lists. I wouldn't be surprised if they click in the New Year after I've listened to all those end of year playlists, and I come begging for forgiveness.

And while I'm unjustifiably lumping albums together, let's talk about Childish Gambino's R O Y A L T Y, and Kanye West's GOOD Music - Cruel Summer. Both were mixtapes in a more traditional sense, featuring a wide range of guests, with the headliners not necessarily appearing on each track – technically, the latter is only 'presented by' Kanye.
There are plenty of highlights – American Royalty, Silk Pillow and Schoolboy Q's Unnecessary verse on R O Y A L T Y; Cold, New God Flow and Mercy's oppressive beats on Cruel Summer – but because the albums weren't a sealed unit, it made the weaker tracks stand out, meaning I was more likely to stumble across the better ones on shuffle.
The second Big Boi record, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, also failed to live up to its predecessor – but then again, his solo debut is one of the best rap records of the last decade. Once again, it was the individual tracks which stood out, but for the right reasons. The aforementioned Mama Told Me, the pure simple filth of She Said OK, Phantogram's ethereal appearances on Objectum Sexuality and CPU – they all felt like, in a better world, they could have been hit singles.
Coming out late in the year, the album didn't get the summer of hard rotation it deserved, but I can't see myself tiring of it by the time the sun finally emerges in 2013.
Given that I've struggled to find a particular hip-hop album that hung together and worked for me, it's probably apt that my favourite rap music of 2012 came from Kitty Pryde's various releases, pushed onto the internet in messy mixtape-sized chunks.
(I've written about her already this year, when I named Okay Cupid one of the best songs of the year - a statement I stand firmly by - and compared it to Call Me Maybe.)
Falling in love was a foregone conclusion, really: with a handle stolen from my favourite superheroine, Pryde is a (roughly) teenage girl, rapping her way along the line between innocent youth, old-hand cynicism, and utter filth. Her song are scattered with a modern Waste Land of pop cultural references – Pikachu, Lizzy Maguire, The Sims,, Justin Bieber.
There's something a bit voyeuristic about listening to her music, the thrill of a friend's older sister's diary – or more accurately, a MySpace page or LiveJournal blog. The songs feel kind of like they’re being written as she sits at her computer and pushed out at 2am, before she has any second thoughts. They're confessional and clever, honest but self-conscious. 
I can't quite imagine a full-length album from her, but I can't wait.
Versus mode
I always thought of Sleigh Bells' 2010 debut as a spirital successor to Crystal Castles – aggressively danceable, semi-incoherent glitch-pop.  Treats outshone Crystal Castles' second, released that same year, but here in 2012, it's the other way round.
More than that, the two have proved how wrong I was by going in two very different directions. While Sleigh Bells explore the taboo sounds of '80s arena rock on Reign of Terror, Crystal Castles's (III) dives fully into grim nihilist horror. 
I own both albums on CD, and I think handling the two tells you all you need to know. Reign of Terror's cover shows pair of battered converse, an image heavy on the dusty whites except for one blood-stained toecap. (III)'s cover is pitch-black goth.
Flip over and the track names fill in the rest of the blanks: Sleigh Bells titles embrace familiar rock clichés – End of the Line, Leader of the Pack, Road to Hell. Meanwhile, Crystal Castles manage to live up to titles like Plague, Kerosene and, my personal favourite, Child I Will Hurt You.
It's all a bit more complicated than that, of course, but I think I've done enough expansive analysis for one day.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE COMICS OF 2012

Our round-up of 2012's best pop culture continues to run off the rails of the originally planned schedule. But fear not, the final piece, on the year's best music, will be with you in time to change your NYE playlist accordingly.

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In 2012, I read more comics than in any other year of my life, thanks to Comixology's endless stream of sales and the truly excellent Canada Water library. I developed such an addiction to comics podcasts (between the industry analysis of House to Astonish, the close reading of Kieron Gillen's DecompressediFanboy's chatty quickfire reviews, and Mindless One's SILENCE!, in many ways its scrappy British cousin) that I've recently had to cut back. Moving to London meant I saw what my girlfriend describes as my 'comics friends' far more, hitting up the ever-wonderful Thought Bubble and owning its dancefloor with them.
I'm more immersed in comics culture than I've ever been.

...And yet, coming to write this, I find myself with a rather thin list of actual comics which came out in 2012.
Buying cut-price digital issues on Comixology – plus monthly splurges on Amazon – has forced me into reading older material and collections.

It means I've finally got past the first trades of The Invisibles, Sandman, and a wealth of other stuff I'm embarrassed to admit I hadn't read before, but I've also dropped off buying monthly issues almost entirely. If I wasn't a tradewaiter (non-comics people translation: someone who doesn't read their comics monthly, in issue format, but waits for the bi-annual-ish 'trade paperback' collections) before, I certainly am now.

However, it also means I haven't read any further into Journey into Mystery, my favourite comic of last year, than I had at the time. It's very nearly all available in trade, though, so I've got a wonderfully condensed period of high adventure, deep thinking and, if the internet is anything to go by, big emotions ahead of me.
And it's not all bad: regular trips to the library have furnished me with handsome editions of the first five Locke & Key volumes. It's a story about the Locke family and their ancestral home, Keyhouse, beginning with a father's murder and blossoming out from there. The titular keys (and nominal locks) each come with their own magical power, and a matching metaphor.
In truth, despite being written by Stephen King's son, Locke & Key's nearest relative is probably Buffy. It transitions deftly between tense thriller/well-drawn ensemble drama/experimental formalism/pure horror throughout, but the draw is always the characters. The series' scope has widened, drawing in more of the family's history and pushing towards the fantastical, as it reaches its climax but it stays anchored to the human stories of Tyler, Kinsey and Bode Locke. It all concludes next year (five more issues, or one more collection) – catching up is highly recommended.

Meanwhile, the Comixology model has produced Double Barrel. Playing with the format rather than the form, the Brothers Cannon have developed a monthly digital comics magazine, centred around an ongoing story from each, but also drawing in essays, mini-comics, and how-to's. Both stories are solid, with Kevin Cannon bringing smoother art to the Arctic pirate space adventure story Crater XV and Zander Cannon delivering my favourite story in Heck, a modern slice-of-life riff on Dante's Inferno.
Without the constraints of print, each chapter can be as long or short as it needs to be, but for just $2 (and dropping below $1 after a month) Double Barrel is the most interesting bargain in the modern comics landscape.
I think overall, I've settled into the reading rhythm that's best for me, grabbing #1s digitally (year's best? Hawkeye, which promised a modern blueprint for superhero comics) and then using them to decide what I'll pick up six months later.
It gives series more room to breathe. For example, the first couple of issues of Saga – the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit – were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically.
Living up to what people had been saying about it in the first half of the year, the first volume of Prophet made for an intoxicating read. The art shifts as constantly as the world, with little touchstones serving to link up the style of each artist: The dense alien landscapes intended to be pored over. The inventory panels stolen straight out of a videogame. The tactile gnarliness of it all.
Meanwhile the story, which jumps between a number of John Prophet clones I never quite learned to tell apart, is either some higher-level narrative magic, or nonsensical. But really it's all just an excuse to join Prophet (the one with the tail, or the one with the mohawk, or the one that's dead inside his robot bodyguard) as he journeys through a mad, inventive, beautifully rendered world.
Some of the experiences you, the cosmic tourist, can expect to enjoy – falling from the sky in the pink womb of a protective star skin; sharing a post-coital cigarette with your vagina-faced alien lover; watching the stars from the shoulder of a curled-up fetus planet.

Morrison's Batman run has been a regular feature on these end of year round-ups since I started doing them, and Batman Incorporated is shaping up to be a fitting end to his extraordinary run. The story has embraced Batman's entire history, even the bits fans normally wince at, but it's now been running for long enough that it can mine its own past. All the pieces are being brought together. Dozens of Batmen of all nations, and as many interweaving subplots, all battling the forces of evil in the form of Leviathan.
The shadowy organisation's even shadowier leader was revealed to be Talia Al Ghul, Batman's onetime lover and father of his son, presently Robin and potential Devilbatman of the future. With that, the whole epic saga has turned out to be a small family story, really – two parents fighting over custody (and the soul) of a child neither of them wanted in the first place – played out on a huge canvas.
Morrison's never been great at endings, but you get the impression this might just be the one he pulls off.
The most grown-up thing I've read this year is doubtless Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?, the follow-up and companion piece to Fun Home, a memoir about her father. This raises an interesting problem. Whereas the first part told the story of her father, a closeted homosexual raising a family in a funeral home who committed suicide, Bechdel's relationship with her mother isn't so obviously story-shaped.
In response, she dives into her own internal processes, and makes the story about them. Are You My Mother? covers the period of writing and publishing Fun Home, and some of the lead-in to this book. It's incredibly reflexive – pages layer the actual events as they happen with the transcribing of those events, to appear in the book – but completely disinterested in being post-modern.
It's merely a symptom of being a book about analysis, which by its nature, is deeply analytical. Everything is pored over. Individual elements, events and objects recur, are placed alongside other elements, and are re-examined. You get memories and dreams, therapy sessions which pick over those dreams and memories, pages from psychology books, carefully copied letters, all overlapping with one another.
Reading that again, it sounds exhausting. I'm making Are You My Mother? sound like something overly worthy and heavy, the comics equivalent of Oscar-bait. Honestly, it is very literary, and at times even scholarly – a necessity, I think, of trying to represent on the page the process of over-thinking and constant self-analysis.
But it's also never anything less than an enthralling read. Your thumb sits constantly on the bottom corner of the page, waiting to turn it like the best class of trashy bestseller. It's just that Are You My Mother? will have you flicking backwards just as often as forwards, to compare and examine and analyse.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE GAMES OF 2012

Sorry, the running order has already slipped, due to yesterday being a lovely day of family, friends, and boardgames, but here's today's scheduled Games article. Comics should be with you tomorrow.

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It's been a big year for games, in about every conceivable way. Between the rise of Kickstarter, and the continuing flood of Humble Bundles and its ilk, it's not hard to look at 2012 as a year that a
wealth of alternative approaches opened up to game developers.
But looking at the industry – which also spent a lot of the year showing its ugly side – isn't really my forté, or that interesting. It's not about the machine, it's about what it produces. On to the games!

Probably the most 'important' game of the year is Thirty Flights of Loving, which introduced a bit of fresh vocabulary to the medium in its hard cuts and hypercompression. Over the 20 minutes it lasts, the game jumps around non-linearly, squeezing in enough story, world and character for your average blockbuster. It's not a game I fell in love with, but it is a useful game, the kind you can expect to see name-dropped endlessly in articles about game narrative from now on.
Dishonored's narrative is much more traditional, telling Dunwall's story with a mix of cutscenes, overheard conversations and level design (graffiti, audiologs, books, bodies, etc). The real story, of course, is in how you played it – leaping rooftop to rooftop, freezing time and possessing rats; switching cups of poison and hiding under tables to watch the outcome; silently dispatching roomfuls of men and leaving their unconscious bodies on top of chandeliers.
It's not quite the machine for memorable anecdotes I'd hoped for, but partly that's down to how I played, strictly sticking to a set of rules I'd assigned myself – never get spotted, never kill (with the exception of those who framed me for the murder of the Empress). It meant I found myself restarting at the slightest provocation, getting into sticky situations becoming a nuisance rather than a chance to improvise with the excellent toolbox the game grants you.
It made me realise how much I love games which force me to live with my actions and mistakes – more on that later.
Halo 4. Now there's a game I didn't expect to see on this list.
I've played every game in the Halo series, now six installments deep (not including last year's remake). Together, I've probably devoted more time to it than any other series in videogaming (and therefore probably more than any other hobby full stop).
The game picks up, two games later, where Halo 3 left off back in 2007, with Bungie handing over the reigns to first-time developer 343. It wasn't too promising, especially once I heard about the CODification of the multiplayer, introducing levels and points and perks, abandoning Halo's trademark simplicity.
And then the chatter came through the wire. Twitter suddenly blossomed with praise, throwing around phrases like “ballet” and “finely tuned” and expressing their surprise at just how good it was.
On paper, Halo 4 shouldn't be as good as it is. There's nothing particularly original on offer – the opening of the singleplayer campaign, at least, is so structurally similar to the 2001 original it could be a remake. It even trims off some of my favourite features – multiplayer minus my beloved Invasion mode, and the rather-good Firefight has been replaced. But most damningly, there's not even a good control setting, or even a customisable one.
And yet everything somehow feels fresh and elegant. Both the visuals and handling are satisfyingly chunky, delivering on the promise of Halo at its best. Maybe it's just down to streamlining the experience and turning all the dials to 11 – in multiplayer especially, where respawn time is erased completely, and weapons and vehicles are thrown into each level with careless abandon.
I don't know, it's just an utter joy, and I need to play more. Now.
One of the great pleasures of having spent so much time with a game's predecessors is being able to really appreciate the various tiny changes – in the case of Halo 4, take the way the singleplayer campaigns provides with much more limited ammo. You can see why it was changed – it forces you to constantly switch around your arsenal – and it's a satisfying process of discovery, even if you disagree with some of the changes.
It's a similar story with Spelunky, an Xbox Arcade remake of possibly my favourite PC game ever (and the other contender for the game I've spent most time spent playing). I love that there's no 'restart' button, encouraging you to live with the consequences of getting stung by a scorpion in the first 10 seconds of a game, which really focuses the point of the game. The in-game encyclopaedia, as much it offends my inner Spelunky purist, is rather smart, and I love the way the Tunnel Man asks for items rather than/as well as cash to dig his shortcuts, which adds a sprinkle variety and narrative to your encounters with him.
Mostly, though, I can feel how the distribution of monsters, damsels-in-despair, and traps has changed. They're laid out more densely, which upsets my play style a little – and means letting a boulder loose can get you in a lot of unintended trouble as it steamrollers shops, shrines, and damsels – but ensures levels never get boring, especially with the addition of all the new monsters and secrets.
The removal of end-of-level scoreboard is the change that hurts most. It always helped lend a sense of progression to a session of bashing your head against Spelunky's unforgiving world, and was tied neatly into the game's physical levels.
But, really, Spelunky is such a complete, rounded concept to start with that it doesn't really matter, and the port is responsive and pretty. Plus, one of the changes is the ability to switch out all the Damsels for pugs, which eliminates pretty much any criticisms I could raise.
FTL picked up many of the same pleasures Spelunky provided and ran with them - basically, by being completely unforgiving in its mechanics and making every mistake count. I've written about how it simulates being captain of a spaceship with controls jammed to the heart of the sun, but ultimately my favourite thing was the permanence, and how it made every little decision (much-needed repair or new laser weapon?) feel important, especially when it turned out to be the wrong one.

It'd be easy to characterise Hotline Miami as I game I like as a concept more than in actuality, but in fairness I've barely dipped into its sun- and violence-drenched levels. I find its smooth subtle blend of Drive, the old GTA, and '80s cocaine nightmare highly appealing, but I've spent more time reading about it (and nodding along) than playing it. It's a similar story with Dark Souls, which technically came out in the form I played it late last year, but I'm including it here, because [various justifications] but mostly because I want to namedrop it.

If we were applying the 'WWE All Stars' rule (which I never got around to writing about as my Game of 2011, sorry, due to losing the disc – but essentially the one I had most fun playing with friends, biggest laughs, the thing I'd want to play most with drink in hand) my personal game of the year would be Worms 2: Armageddon on Xbox 360. That's in spite of it being a game which came out on the platform in 2009, and actually really launched in the late '90s. Nevertheless, it's still got it, and the living room TV turns out to be Worms' natural home. That simple move proves to be far more of a revolution than any of the abortive attempts to introduce 3D, complex physics, or any of that modern malarkey.

And there's still so much stuff I haven't even touched, for reasons of time or money, that I can't wait to get my hands on. Far Cry 3, Walking Dead, XCOM, Mark of the Ninja... I'm sure I'll get round to talking about some of those in 2013, with my usual trademark timeliness.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE FILMS OF 2012

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I suspect that 2012 was a really exceptional year for film, if only because the list of films I regret missing in cinemas – The Raid, Skyfall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dredd, Sightseers, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild – is far longer than the list below, and I was more than happy with the year of films as it was.
For me, though, 2012 was all about Joss Whedon. Three out of the dozen times I made it to the cinema this year were down to Whedon, who released two films (of the three it looked like we might be getting at the start of the year, boo hiss Much Ado). One of them was the year's biggest grossing; the other was my personal favourite experience in a cinema all year.
We'll get to the latter in another post, but (Marvel's) Avengers (Assemble) was exciting because of the amount of influence and money it seems to be putting into the hands of one of my favourite directors – but also because it's a truly great blockbuster, one which inspired me to write 3,000 words back in August.
Six months on, what I remember about it most is:
-Containing a whole bunch of moments which caused my jaw to drop – the helicarrier, Black Widow kicking guys in their heads, the vast majority of the final action scene.
-Being a great and colourful introduction to a sprawling family I want to spend more time with – probably the way in which Avengers is truest to the (very best of) its source material.
-Geoff being absolutely wrong about Hulk, something we fight over in pubs to this day. He argues Hulk is treated too lightly, with too much comic relief given over to this monstrous being. But of course, Mark Ruffalo is the best Hulk ever, including the pencil-and-ink one, and it's a totally Whedon thing to get that the Id isn't a completely bad thing. Denying a whole part of you – the funny bit, the sexy bit, the bit that likes to dance – is where the sickness really starts (for all people who haven't taught The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde to an A-Level English class, now would be the time to go and reread it). There are maybe some continuity issues with the previous film, but for me these films are so much about stripping these characters back to their core metaphors and letting that interpretation run rampant for two hours that it doesn't matter too much.

Oh, and it of course absolutely stomped all over the highly misleadingly titled Amazing Spider-Man, which had thirty seconds of great fight scene and Emma Stone in high socks. How it compares to that Other Superhero Film of the Year, Dark Knight Rises, I sadly can't answer, as I still haven't seen it – something which owes a lot to the deflated reaction that followed its incredibly hyped release, and a conversation with Tim 'Person of the Year' Maytom in a Camden pub in which he described trucks of cash being driven up to Chris Nolan's front door in a borderline threatening manner.
As seems to be the official line on it, Brave wasn't Pixar's best, but it was still a non-Cars Pixar film, and therefore pretty great.
It took a standard-issue fantasy setting and set of tropes, along with a rather broad sense of humour, and made something beautiful (though it was out-prettied by the accompanying La Luna short) and engaging, with the rare achievement of fight scenes that had me rooting desperately for the good guys. Also, it was yet another reminder that the combination of sweeping scores and parental relations in a cinema can put a very big lump at the back of my throat.

“THIS DECADE'S THE MATRIX,” the poster screamed. The chorus of early reviews roughly concurred. I went into Looper thinking it might be my film of the year, which is never a healthy expectation, and given that, it handled itself very well.
Looper is a neat package – a smart concept, neatly executed, and full of neat moments I won't spoil here. It's set in just the right kind of sci-fi world, one that is rarely pushed in your face, but rather gives you the pleasure of hunting through the background details and piecing together a history of the future yourself. It toyed with other film's visions of the future, but found its own identity in the wide open spaces that surrounded the futuristic city. There's also a full essay on how cleverly it presents and contrasts Willis and Gordon-Levitt's firearms, to characterise the differences between them and to help define the plot, and what we can all learn from that.
But that's a story for another time - and besides, what's most important, more than how stylish and smart it was, is that how surprisingly emotionally involving Looper was. Watching it the week after Brave, its climax matched that film in the 'nearly making Alex cry' stakes.
What time is love?
Beyond that, I'm finding myself having to score the release schedules to remember what I actually saw. Young Adult was a downbeat, volume-turned-down follow up to Juno from Cody/Reitman, swapping that film's primary colours caricature for something more muted and aching. Something a bit more adult... but not quite grown up. It was great, and just the right level of tough, and deserves a spot on everyone's DVD shelf.
Cosmopolis left me cold despite taking the approach to sci-fi I described above, and despite the great line-up of talent involved. Seen on a whim, Red Lights was very pleasant, if unspectacular, company for two hours. American (Pie: The) Reunion left me wandering around Tesco's feeling strangely desolate about growing up.

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE PLAN

2012 Banner
As we rapidly deplete what remains of 2012, people like me get the sudden itch to make lists like these. I've done it for the past four years on this very blog, and have tried to find an interesting format each time - whether it's 100 one-sentence reviews, long-form essays, or imaginary mixtapes.

This year, I'm too old and too tired to think of anything particularly original, so I'm going to use that most hackneyed of formalist devices: mirroring. From now until the New Year, I'll be publishing a quick rundown of my year's highlights in pop culture, starting today with film, and then start January with something more longform on a single example of the year's best in each.

On New Year's Eve, as the centrepiece of this tomfoolery, we'll have our annual Person of the Year piece from Tim Maytom (winner: Alex's personal man of the year, 1997-present, and owner of a shiny new blog at

There's a full schedule below, if only so you can watch how quickly I veer off it. I'll try and add links as I go.

27 Dec - Film
29 Dec - Games
30 Dec - Comics
31 Dec - Music
31 Dec - Person of the Year
1 Jan - Games: ?????????? & ??????
2 Jan - Music: ????????
3 Jan - Comics: ????
4 Jan - Film: ??? ????? ?? ??? ?????

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

FTL: Misadventure Hero

FTL describes itself as a 'a spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like'.

That's kind of true, but not quite. It's neither deep nor broad enough to be a spaceship simulator.
Instead, it simulates a particular feeling, a particular moment – one you might be familiar with from sci-fi films and TV. Specifically, Star Trek. More specifically, the bit where Captain Kirk/Picard/Janeway is sat on the bridge, in their big comfy captain's chair, as the crew buzzes around them desperately. More specifically, the bit where they shout “power down the shields, and put it all into the weapons” and the immortal response comes back: “Aye aye, captain”.

Its closest kin in that respect is Football Manager or Champ Man or whatever it is the kids are playing these days. Both games let you live out a fantasy – you're the manager of a football team, you're the captain of a spaceship – and then picks and chooses the necessary elements to help your imagination get there.
Just like all the best spaceships, FTL is cobbled together from disparate pieces. Its combat is a real-time strategy game with a very small canvas. Whenever it wants to give you something more complex, a moral decision or familiar sci-fi scenario, it becomes a simplified text adventure. Travelling between each point uses an interface taken straight from boardgames. From RPGs, it takes loot and an upgradeable, customisable ship. From roguelikes it nicks the randomised levels and heartbreaking perma-death.

Despite all those moving parts, though, the result is something neatly simple. It doesn't take long to learn how to control your three crew – just left-click to select, right-click to send them somewhere – or what the HUD means – typically eight or so different systems, from weapons to shields to oxygen, which you can put differing levels of power into, draining your reactor in the process. It's all controlled from a top-down view of the ship, with each system getting its own room. Putting crew into rooms , and helps fix them if – when – they break down.

Frankly, FTL isn't very sexy – like Football Manager, the graphics are barely there, and the pausable action always stays a step removed – but that's not important. Like all the best games, it's a token, a tool, a lightning rod. Something your imagination can grab onto and start telling stories with.
My favourite sci-fi TV series, predictably, is Firefly. More specifically, my favourite episode is Out of Gas – an episode split between flashbacks and a disastrous breakdown of the spaceship all the characters live on. More specifically, my favourite bit, my favourite moment, is the opening of that episode. The ship, floating adrift in space. Each of its room, stripped of their familiarity by the simple fact of being empty. Captain Malcolm Reynolds face down on the floor as the oxygen seeps out of the ship... Doomed.

I said FTL is a simulator of the Star Trek bridge moment, but it's a simulation of that moment too. Of making a bad decision, and condemning your whole crew to a drawn-out death – or an extremely quick one, depending on the size of guns your baddies are packing. Of being the last one alive, whispering apologies, as the fires spread and you can't fix everything at once, and holding on futilely until the crack in your hull sucks out that last 1% of oxygen.

FTL is mean, and that's great.
One of the tips, which are meted out sparsely, one per playthrough, just tells you 'Dying is part of the fun'. And it is. As in fellow roguelike-like Spelunky, death is where most of the stories come from. And just like Spelunky, there's the sense of a Rube Goldberg device that leads, inevitably, to your death. This then this – why didn't I buy those missiles at the last store? – plus this – where'd the lights go? who's behind that door? – leads to this –  why did I ever to help these poor, defenseless idiots? - and then you're dead, a splat on the universe's windscreen.

And you take a moment to mourn the good ship Crushinator – and AJ Hager, your Engi who saved everyone's asses that time – then flip on the wipers, clean off the mess, and start again.

Or maybe you pull it back, praying you'll make it to the next store and its valuable repair equipment, before you undergo another one of those misadventures. And you do, and suddenly your ship is all-powerful and it's glorious, each new location handing you generous piles of scrap, the game's currency, new weapons to bolt onto your hull, a new crew member of a species you'd never even encountered before...

But more likely, you land in an electrical storm, next to the baddest pirate ship in the known universe, and it puts in those final hits to your hull. And, after you spent so long repairing everything, and healing your crew, and Captain Elnubnub just levelled up his repair ability, your ship falls back into those pieces its cobbled together from.

That's the nature of being randomised. Like the universe itself, it can be completely unfair.
Oh dear...
It took a dozen or so playthroughs (read: deaths) before I started to get the hang of the game. And then, just as I did, I got hit, again and again, with the same scenario – battling a rebel ship too close to a small sun, with solar flares . I must have died close to a dozen times, more or less consecutively playing that same scenario. A different ship maybe, but always getting torn apart by solar flares. And so I thought, well this is it, this is how it beats you. But I haven't seen that scenario since. It's just the way the deck gets shuffled, I suppose.

Besides, if it all gets too much, you can switch over to Easy mode, which is more generous with scrap and combat's a little more forgiving. It's a good palette cleanser, but it's not the real game, and before long, you'll have to switch back to Normal and take your pastings.

But the most important thing is that it's short. It's that roguelike thing again - games can, and do, end suddenly and meaninglessly, but it only took 15 minutes to get to that point. The whole game's less than an hour long, if you can beat it. If.

For that reason, FTL is perfect for a journey by bus or train, or the odd time on the tube where you can actually get a seat – anything where you're moving but have no actual control over your destination. And it's more than just a distraction, like the other commuters playing Angry Birds around you - it's teleportation, transmogrification.

Your gum-ridden seat is transformed into that captain's chair. Just you and a battered old laptop against the universe. Bring it on.


Monday, 12 November 2012

Pilot Season Sunday

TV is a bugger. People are always talking up the hot new thing, and when they turn to me, I am left slack of jaw and glassy of eye, nothing to contribute. 'Um, have you ever heard of this programme called Buffy?' 
That's why myself and Imogen 'Couch Innovator' Dale decided to invent Pilot Season Sunday: watch the first episode of a load of TV shows our friends, colleagues and assorted internet tastemakers have been pushing for the last eternity, assign each a star rating, and then decide which are worth watching more of. 
These are the shows we watched:

Parks & Recreation
Parks & Rec has been on the to-watch list for a while now. You like Community, people will say - try this, it's even better. This normally comes with the caveat that you have to give it time, that it doesn't hit its stride in the first few episodes, maybe even the first season. Both sides of this now make sense to me. 
I liked its moxie - it seems like a cheery and optimistic version of The Office, in both of its transatlantic incarnations - but there wasn't much meat on its bones. No hooks to bring me back, no big laughs. Maybe I'll try the second season next time.
3 Stars

Pushing Daisies
It's going to be a hard climb for any TV show which starts with a dog dying. But it turns out Pushing Daisies - which I knew basically nothing about, except that I want to watch all the programmes with allusions to death in their titles - is a Venn diagram of my favourite stuff from elsewhere in TV-land:
Gilmore Girls' too-fast, too-snappy dialogue, served with a Whedon-style genre twist and the visual style of a brilliantly quirky cartoon, the bright primary-colour palette neatly offsetting the morbid concept. Combined, á la Veronica Mars, with a neat central mystery, it couldn't be more My Bag if it tried.
Plus, there were two (non-dead) dogs in this episode, one of which was a chow and one of which may be immortal. All is forgiven.
4 Stars

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
The internet - by which I mostly mean Tim 'Brony' Maytom - has been going on about this for ages. I had to know why. The numerous pony puns ('Canterlot') are perfectly pitched, the soft-outlined art style is pretty, and it's a rather charming package, but I'm still not sure I understand the fanaticism. Sorry, Tim.
3 Stars

A TV curse which I recommend never catching: watching the credits. It can ruin surprise guest appearances, and figuring out which are your favourite and least favourite writers and directors on staff can colour the way you watch an episode. In this case, it was spotting the name Bryan Fuller and thinking, isn't that the guy off'f the Pushing Daisies credits?
And then it was obvious. The dialogue's a bit less quickfire, though no less sharp, and it's less obviously quirky and twee - no mean feat for an episode boasting a menagerie of talking animal souvenirs - but in the long term, that could mean it doesn't grate. That is, if it had a long term - apparently it was cancelled at episode 13. Oops.
3.5 Stars

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Which was a sitcom which gave me upwards of three belly laughs and a handful more chuckles. With eight seasons to consume, I can see this going into hard rotation as background watching in the flat. I think it'll do just fine.
4 Stars

Green Arrow has a great origin story, actually. Spoilt rich kid gets stranded on island for five years, becomes a mysterious hardened bad-ass, and returns to society to right his father's wrongs. Its combination of Lost and Batman fits TV perfectly, and looks like it'll lend Arrow a neat structural hook going forward.
It's a bit of a blunt instrument for something which takes an arrowhead as its symbol, but I'll never get tired of watching a man weaponising his own life. Making connections to Batman, especially Nolan's recent films, would be fish in a barrel, but it works.
It's a bit dumb (I'll cheer if his British-accented vaguely-ethnic stepfather miraculously doesn't turn out to be a villain) and the pilot was a bit reliant on nods and winks to the source material (Speedy, Diggle, Dinah, lol) but... hey, that's superheroes, right?
3.5 Stars

And that was Pilot Season Sunday. As a way of making snuggling into the sofa and watching a frankly unhealthy amount of TV seem like an Event, it's highly recommended. Feel free to steal the format.
Shows we didn't get round to, which will no doubt make up the roster of future Pilot Season Sundays, include Girls, Misfits, Breaking Bad, Veep, and Six Feet Under. Any further suggestions are warmly welcomed.

NB: These star ratings are the ones I originally gave each episode. Could've changed them if I was so inclined - as has been pointed out by Tom 'Daylight' Huxley, Wonderfalls definitely deserved more stars than Arrow. But I opted for authenticity instead. 4 REAL, etc, etc.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Something Old: Crackdown 2

Found this while digging around in the corners of my external hard drive - a short review from last year, of a game that was already old when I got my hands on it. Shared here as a curiosity/to keep the blog ticking over/because you really should play Crackdown 2, y'know. It's well fun.

The deep burn. Oh, it's so deep! Oh, I can barely lift my right arm 'cause I did so many. I don't know if you heard me counting, I did over a thousand.

Really, all open-world games are just playgrounds. They give you a safe space and just enough equipment for you to make your own fun. Individual games specialise, improving the playground itself – Red Faction’s destructible buildings – or the toys you’re given – Just Cause’s trademark grappling hook.

Crackdown 2, however, gives you what every child swinging from the monkey bars really wants: super powers. You are a genetically-modified government agent in the mutant-infested Pacific City. Faster than a speeding bullet and all the rest, packing gadgets that would make Tony Stark jealous - including an SUV which can drive along walls.

To get your hands on one of those beauties you’ve got to prove yourself, by gaining experience points in five areas – strength, agility, driving, guns, and explosives – by performing relevant actions. Punch someone off a roof to boost your strength, squash them beneath your tyres to access better cars. Chasing after Agility Orbs or jumping a car through stunt rings provide less violent alternatives. It’s a just-clever-enough system, encouraging a constantly varied play-style. Explosive skill lagging behind? Stop running everyone over and break out the grenades.

As a sequel it’s not much of a step forward and the game only provides the barest bones of missions, but all that really matters is how genuinely powerful you feel, especially at the higher levels, as you leap between rooftops and fling cars at enemies. You are Superman. Or rather, you're the kid jumping off the swings and shouting "up, up and away".

Look, up in theeeaaaarrSPLAT

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

An Epic of Epic Epicness?

Comparing tools

Epic Mickey is probably the most fascinating game I’ve never bothered to play. I mean, the creator of legendary PC mix-‘em-up Deus Ex digs into the nooks and crannies of the Disney Universe? League of Extraordinary Gentlemen + House of Mouse? That is some Alex Spencer catnip, right there.

But you can't help feeling that there’s a lot of compromise mixed up in there. Compromise of a few different kinds – the necessary sacrifices of working with Disney, maybe, and the necessary sacrifices of making a game that can reach kids and adults, and of making a game for the Wii, and of making a mainstream game at all.

That makes a sequel, which has the benefit of learning from all the mistakes its older brother already made, a very attractive prospect. Especially when you start throwing words like ‘co-op’ and ‘musical’ into that formula.

So I found myself sitting in Disney’s London headquarters, listening to Warren Spector – aforementioned head of the Deus Ex family – chat up both games, and hoping…

Some of that weirdness

…and then, inevitably, being let down a little. Spector opened with a stream of marketing-research buzzwords – Mickey was ‘cool’ now, he said, he was ‘surprising’ – and a back-of-the-box bulletpoint list of improved features. The camera’s not broken any more, the characters can actually talk now, and there’s even more persistence.

Which admittedly, are the kind of fixes that make this sequel sound like a good idea, but when you’ve got one of gaming’s most interesting brains up on stage, talking about a pretty great concept, it’s not exactly what you’re hoping for.

But slowly, Spector moved off script a little, and the interesting stuff started to come out. The history of Oswald the Rabbit – who Walt Disney created, and had Simon&Schustered away from him, before Mickey was so much as a twinkle in his eye. What Disney said no to – notably, a series of rejected Tinkerbell designs he wanted to se as a gaggle of jealous sisters for the fairy. The way the games intertwine the real and fictional history of Disney – its theme parks, after all, being the kind of places which feature secret underground bars, and its studios being the kind of places which feature secret underground tunnels. Enemies which meld an animatronic outer shell with a inkblot doodle centre. The kind of stuff which makes the Epic Mickey concept deeply fascinating, essentially.

Again and again, Spector kept coming back to that persistence thing – the importance of choices in how you play the game, and of their consequences later on. It’s the connecting thread through all of his career and output, and the thing which makes Warren Spector’s Epic Mickey a fascinating prospect.

Cutscene smooth

…and then I got to play the game a bit. Admittedly, it was more or less a tutorial level, and I was feeling the pressure of a dozen onlookers while I got stumped by a game designed for children, but my fifteen minutes of game didn’t bear out any of those virtues.

There were no quirky characters or settings nicked cheekily from ancient Disney lore – the game is a thing of beauty, in a way that doesn’t come across in screen shots. It’s as fluid as a cartoon, and Mickey’s jump animation deserves poetry written about it. But it didn’t feel like a world cobbled together from the debris of eighty years of animation history. The brooms from Fantasia danced around the margins of the level I stumbled through, and looked absolutely lovely doing so, but what was at the centre felt a little generic.

Nor did I get any sense of the Guaranteed 100% More Persistence we’d been promised. The narrator reliably informed me that it really did matter whether I chose to use the game’s paintbrush mechanic to paint or erase, create or destroy, but it didn’t seem to change the way the game played. There certainly weren’t any of Deus Ex’s trademark alternative routes or self-created puzzle solutions. There was nary a conveniently-placed ventilation shaft in sight.

It was that feeling again, of the compromise necessary to gain access to the Disney universe and its fictions, of shackling a sharp and inventive mind to the dulling influence of something like the Disney corporation.

So here I am again, sitting and hoping. This time, I will buy the game, will bother to play it. And hopefully at least some of that potential and some of those ideas and passion and weirdness will make it through into the final product. Let’s hope.
Mightier than the sword, etc.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

52 Pick Up - The Project 52 Podcast

Project 52.1 wide

It's been a long time coming, but it's finally here – Project 52's little podcasty brother, in which the six 'second wave' titles of DC's New 52 are discussed at length.

Recorded in an underground bunker at some point back around the beginning of time, the podcast gathers together five of comicdom's finest minds – Compére extraordinaire, Robin Harman, smooth of voice and shaggy of beard. The virtuous Tim Maytom, good and fair. Brett Canny, drawing from each of the seven gods whose names make up his word of power. Michael Eckett, with hair of silk and fist of iron. And hired idiot Alex Spencer.

In the hot forge of debate, these five personalities became one and, lo, the 52 Pick Up podcast was born, strong as adamantium and lengthy as fifty-eight of your Imperial minutes.

Doesn't that sound magical? Doesn't that sound like something you'd like to hear take place?

Well, now you can - using the embedded widgety chap below, or by right-clicking here to download and take on your merry way.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Avengers - What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Three

Here we are at last, the final piece of the puzzle.  If you've made it through parts one and two of this overly in-depth look at Marvel's record-breaking, block-busting summer team-up behemoth The Avengers, then I am genuinely grateful. If you haven't ... well, don't you think you'd better catch up
Taking it easy being green

III. The Why
“I don’t like to create something that doesn’t say anything.”
–Joss Whedon

The Avengers is, more or less, an almost-seamless machine for producing childlike joy. Given how fully it succeeds in this respect, it seems churlish to ask of it what I’m about to ask. But I’m a man who owns a 500-page book of essays on Whedon’s work and... well, see the above quote.

Is it meant to make you feel anything, being awesome? Is it about anything except the maths of Iron Man + Hulk = AWESOME? Does it have anything to say?

Yes. Maybe. No. Kind of.

Emotionally speaking, all you’ve got is the trad. Whedon death. But here, it’s explicitly worked to fuel the plot. As well-worked into the public’s affections as Coulson is, his passing isn’t really worked for emotion the way any number of Whedon characters are (e.g. [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and, of course, [REDACTED]. Boy, that one was really something, wasn’t it?)

The story, intermittently, is about a lot of the usual modern-superhero-film things – America as a superpower; the military-industrial complex; image and perception; all adding up to the question of how superheroes function in a realistic, modern world. It’s about a lot of the usual Joss Whedon things, too – outsiders vs. authority; the cost of victory; and, perhaps most of all, building a family out of what was previously just a disparate handful of people.

It’s not especially about those things, though. So maybe it’s a character study?

'So then I take my pants off?'

After my first viewing, I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more attention given over to each character. You know, just time chilling with the heroes, maybe a little peek at how Whedon reckons each of their minds work. It seems likely a lot of that may have ended up on the cutting room floor, but there is still plenty there – it’s just under the surface.

It’s in Ruffalo’s fidgety faux-calm performance, and little throwaway lines, and how we meet each character. I was left craving their characters’ company (Which I reckon goes some way to explain the millions of people who apparently have come out of the theatre, bought a ticket and maybe some overpriced salty snacks, and just gone right back in. They’re not, I think, going back in to see the same dozen explosions.)

Really – and this should come as no surprise – the characters are what The Avengers is all about. And what the character stuff wants to talk about, mostly, seems to be control.

Group hug

Look at Loki. Like all the best baddies, the threat he poses isn’t solely violent, though obviously with all the explosions and the alien invasion, there is that. It’s a philosophical threat. Loki doesn’t want to destroy the earth, he just wants to impose his worldview on it – that, as a god, he is superior, and as such they should relinquish their free will. Which is precisely what he does to Hawkeye and Dr Selvig at the start of the film. (Interestingly, though, they’re not quite empty-eyed drones. Rather than being fully stripped of their sense of self, they’re just reduced to their roles as scientist and soldier – and Selvig especially seems to be really enjoying himself.)

But Loki, it turns out, is part of a larger chain of command – he’s bossed over by the slightly naff-looking alien, who himself turns out to be a lackey of Thanos. And that echoes the one on the Avengers’ side, of the World Security Council – who are trying to exert power over people because They Know What’s Best (rarely a good sign in Whedon’s work) – and Nick Fury – whose most heroic moment in the film is simply resisting the control of his shadowy superiors and letting the Avengers go free. It’s a chain of people trying to exercise control over one another – and mostly failing.

Control over oneself, though? That’s quite different. It’s pretty much Black Widow’s superpower. Twice in the film she shows her ability to remove herself from her emotions, and weaponise them. That that self-control is only broken by her fear of the Hulk sets up a fascinating dynamic between the two and, in breaking her outer shell a little, provides a way in for any future filmmakers dealing with her.

Tony Stark sits at a balanced midpoint, having had time in two solo feature films to run through most of his self-control issues. That’s great, because it stops Downey Jr from stealing the whole damn show like he threatened to in the trailers, and because it allows him to bond with the character around which the film naturally finds its fascinating centre. The Hulk.

Just ... chillin'

If ever there was a character about the questions of self-control, it’s the Hulk. It’s built into his verdant DNA. Whedon finds a fresh spin on it, something more nuanced and subtle than most interpretations of the Hulk, and Ruffalo sticks the landing effortlessly. He’s treated like a poorly-stored nuclear weapon by most of his teammates but, for the most part, Banner’s pretty damn chill about everything.

It doesn’t fit with our basic perception of the Hulk, but then you start to notice Ruffalo’s ever-busy hands, and then he casually drops the littlest of big reveals: “I’m always angry”. The first time, it knit my brows. It’s such a throwaway line, but in its implications – embracing that life isn’t a clean break between calm and anger, that anger perhaps isn’t such a bad emotion – those three words manage to make the job of the next Hulk director a whole lot harder.

All that control stuff is built into the structure, too. It’s a byproduct of the way The Avengers works – as each franchise-bearing personality steps on screen, they exert their influence on the style of the film and struggle for control of it. We've all done it: you walk into a room full of people you don't know, and the best way to make an impression is to be an exaggerated version of yourself, to try and take some of the control back.

Let’s take a look at that in action in the actual film, though. Stuttgart, Germany. Most of the characters still haven’t met, and we certainly haven’t seen them in action together. And, the inciting incident once again, Loki strides into an operahouse, in slow motion, to strains of classical music. The music starts out diagetic, coming from the assembled orchestra, but as he takes over the scene it fluidly moves into score territory. Each act of swift violence matched with the shrill squeal of a violin bow.

It says, much more clearly than his dread soliloquying and insistence that the assembled crowd kneel before him, that he is in charge. In control. And then Captain America enters, and the dynamic starts to shift. There’s a bit of on-the-nose comment on the historical implications, but the choice of setting brings all sorts of stuff to the forefront. Cap fighting to protect the people that were his sworn enemy only weeks before – at least as he perceives it. Facing off against an enemy from a theology which has been notoriously co-opted by Nazi organisations (see: the controversy surrounding Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall). Whedon reminds you of the two very different contexts of these characters, and picks a logical overlap for them to meet in.

Until finally Iron Man appears, and rewrites the situation once again with his own music – AC/DC, obv – and snappy quips and modern technology, all of which he brings to bear against the two old men. And we barely need to see how it goes down – the film cuts bashfully away to Loki in handcuffs, Stark's sheer textual presence victorious.

This is not an image of Tony Stark

As I was saying … throughout the film, these big bright characters struggle for control, and then eventually relinquish it to become a team. It’s that which ties together all the disparate elements – the different speech, visuals, fighting styles – which fight for dominance in the film’s first hour. The way they all combine by the time of the climactic action scene, like spectral colours run a through a prism into a single beam of pure, muddled white, is what makes it all so satisfying.

So, the question stands: is that enough of an idea to explore, in something that takes up nearly three hours of your time, and billions of our dollars?

Hmm. I’m not sure. Hang on, I think I need to go and watch it again.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Avengers - What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Two

Being the Second Parte of our examination of The Avengers motion picture (J. Whedon, esq.) The first is available for your perusal here.
[Insert thought bubble here]
II. The How
“And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth's mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!”

...And there’s your movie, more or less. That silver-age elevator pitch, turned into two and a half hours of cinema. There’s never any more plot than that, really – but why would you need any?

That means it’s all about the execution. The whole thing hangs off a familiar skeleton of a story, and so – like everything in life, really – it’s all about the people you spend your time with.

We’ve already met Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) in the opening. It’s one of those choices I mentioned finding fascinating. The order, pacing and details of each Avenger’s introduction is masterful. Such a mish-mash of down-to-earth army men, semi-plausible science heroes and alien gods requires no small amount of disbelief-suspension, and Hawkeye’s a great example of that.

And, lo, noone else did disagree with the director

On one hand, he’s the easiest sell of the movie – no powers, just an extraordinarily talented commando. (File alongside Bourne, Rambo, and the now-thrice-invoked Daniel Craig Bond.) On the other… A man with a bow and arrow in a world of gods and robots? One who the general public have never heard of, except for the briefest of glimpses in Thor? Whose wardrobe oscillates between garish purple and leather fetishwear? 
Frankly, his inclusion in the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a bit of a headscratcher.

So the Great God Whedon (or, technically speaking, the Evil God Loki) takes Hawkeye and turns him. A touch of mind-control magic, et voila, you’ve got yourself Evil Hawkeye.

It’s a brilliant way of setting up a character who is essentially Robin-Hood-in-a-wifebeater as a credible threat. Seeing how much he puts the fear up our super-powered heroes makes it clear he’s no joke, so that when he’s finally brought back and turned against the baddies, it feels like a powerful weapon is being drawn.

Throw in some incredibly cool gadget moments, and Hawkeye becomes someone you could actually imagine the kids fighting over getting to be the next morning in the playground.

The Scarlett pimp-ernel

The introduction of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) comes next for similar reasons – she had low-level powers, little brand awareness, no film of her own and, worst of all, is a girl. (Urghhhh!) 

And so Whedon, rather predictably, luxuriates in her introduction, which subverts a damsel-in-distress cliché into a scene-controlling badass with all the ease of a chair to the face. When we meet her, Natasha is tied to a chair, being interrogated by three Russian men. It’s not hard to spot the sexual power balance there. It’s played for just long enough to be convincing then – bam – it turns out she’s not helpless after all, but was in control all along. Plus, suddenly she can move like the deadliest ballerina not featuring in Black Swan

And we should have known, not just because it’s Whedon but because it’s so clearly coded as a performance – the spotlight falling so perfectly on her, the use of mirrors, the contrast between set (ruins of a Soviet car park) and costume (little black dress). It’s pure theatre, and peppered with enough jokes that it doesn’t seem like it has any agenda to preach.

And, once we’ve gotten past the intro of a new Bruce “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – possibly the biggest brand in the whole cast, but with his face, behaviour and body having undergone an appropriately mysterious transformation, from a fairly one-note performance by Ed Norton to Ruffalo’s hand-wringing suppressed brilliance – and Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) – straightforward super-punchy leader, bit jingoistic, but brushed away with a quick “maybe we need a bit of the old fashioned” – we’re back on easy street, with the People’s Favourite, Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr). 

But Whedon still takes care to set up each scene, borrowing just enough visual elements from the characters’ disparate movies to sell them as a cohesive unit – settings, camera work and, most noticeably, colour palettes.

Banner in India is all muted oranges and dusty browns, with green lifted subtly out of the mix. Tony lives in a world of his own construction, all translucent screens and glaring chrome, light by neon. Cap, until he steps out into the world, inhabits a worn, slightly sepia-toned piece of film.

Made with real asbestos for that authentic 30s feel

As the characters are brought together, those palettes are mixed. The four-colour world of the more superheroey superheroes is tempered by the midnight blues of the military elements. It means the film ends up with something that doesn’t have all that much visual style of its own, except the house style. Whedon relinquishes control as director to help sell the idea of these characters co-existing in a way that’s logical. From there, it’s time to start showing how they work together – starting in Stuttgart, which we’ll come back to – but there’s still a piece missing. The film has still got to sell the audience on a Norse God of Thunder in a bright red cape. Thor “Thor” Odinson (Chris Hemsworth).

For the duration, Thor is the one character that is kept lowest in the mix. He has his share of wonderful moments – Hemsworth is an incredibly charismatic and funny actor, who brings something to Thor that I’ve never really seen in the comics – but it’s often the case that they are his moments. Segments featuring Thor and Loki rewrite the script into, as Stark puts it, “Shakespeare in the park”. It couldn’t be truer – the complicated relationship, the family ties, the wordplay, the Iago-ness of Loki cast against the Othello-ness of Thor. And that’s great, but it doesn’t quite fit, and so Thor is pushed into a supporting role, as a sort of Jayne/Cordelia/Anya outsider figure. It’s one which turns out to suit rather him well, actually.

And so the remaining two hours of running time takes its time to combine and recombine these characters, in a way that not only gives each a few of their own little Moments – an iconic action pose, character beat, or funny line – but also gives a little taste of what each pairing is like together, both in terms of personality and power-sets. Captain America and Iron Man squabble, but fight side by side beautifully. Black Widow and Hawkeye have some weird romance going on, which carries into the noticeable fluidity of their combat. Hulk punches Thor in the face, with hilarious results.

The film is warming us up to the idea that these characters can not only coexist in the same reality, but make sense as a coherent unit. All the while, it’s rattling along at a one-action-scene-per-half-hour rate, leading into the final battle, which may be the single most engaging extended action scene I’ve even seen in a film. I giggled and pointed at the screen like a child with every explosion, gadget and Hulk-smash. My jaw spent so much of the running time hanging slack I might as well have been wearing a Ghostface mask. It was like watching Star Wars for the first time again.

And apart from the sheer visual spectacle of the scene, which is undeniable, I think a lot of that is down to how long it spends building to that moment, setting the pieces up so that they make sense when the film starts smashing them together. Squeeze, and release.

The Avengers never struggles to balance a large and disparate cast. It never outstays its welcome, and its action not just make sense but are genuinely exciting. It doesn’t rely on hitting familiar beats, or winking references. It’s even got laughs in it. 

It is undeniable that The Avengers is a particularly fine, perhaps even unprecedented, piece of action-movie craft. But is it also art?

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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.