Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Ma ligne de chance

Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo have a sing-song. Taken from Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou.


BBC 2 in an act of either selfless generosity, or crippling doubt, have elected to show an episode of The Wire season 1 every night this week. Did it get the 10pm slot? Did it heck. Instead you'll have to be up concentrating until early the next day if you want to tie off those procedural loose-ends. If it helps, The Wire's in great company. BBC2 famously gave Seinfeld the scheduling short shrift, and that was only the most popular American TV show ever. Oh well. At least it's finally on terrestrial telly. It was touch and go there. I thought perhaps it might eventually pop up on Channel 5, although it doesn't quite fit their flashy forensics remit. Not enough jump-cuts. A decade or so ago, it might have showed up on Channel 4. Remember when they used to be known for quality imports? In the late 90s they screened Wire's prototype show Homicide: Life on the Street, although that slipped so late in the scheduling I had to cluster-tape the flipping Late Zone into extinction. I don't think they even bothered with the last series. Anyway, Channel 4 eh? Used to be great. Now they're treading water as the official Heat magazine channel. All lurid documentaries and vapid kids presenters.

Enough complaining. Although this bulletin would have been better posted 24 hours ago before you potentially missed the opening episode (and I know you all flock here everyday for spiritual nourishment and creative direction, who can blame you?), here it is. In short, watch The Wire. It's very good indeed. If you've even glanced at The Guardian in the last twelve months you'll have had that beaten into you. Just watch it. It's very good indeed. I'm sure if you haven't dabbled you imagine The Wire to be a dull policer full of impenetrable twist-turning. Or a worthy yelp about inner-city poverty. Or a regular cop show heaving under the weight of endless gobbledygook in-talk and slanging. It's all of that. It's all of that with a twist of street-level superheroics, gangland black ops, stand-up worthy natter, blank man promises, and the rawest examination of childhood I can think of.

Where The Wire really excels though is the politics. I don't mean system double-dealing, just the unspoken bureaucratic rule making that snares itself around everything. The grey area consideration that infects every level of life in Baltimore; be it hanging out a family member in a dead-end drugs barrow for a homicidal mishap, or arranging career suicide apparatus for a chain-of-command-flouting detective. Normal serial TV dramatic consideration doesn't apply. Arcs are not tied off in a few double episode specials, they yawn over the entire length of the show. Stories advance at a clogged, methodical pace. No steps are missed, and everybody has be accounted for. By the end of series 5, the net has widened from law enforcement and dealers to include the entire social political infrastructure of Baltimore. Schools. Government officials. Eroding Middle Class. Media. It's ruthlessly incisive. Let us hope BBC2 takes us there.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Sketch Sunday: Sagat

Sagat kicked his way into our hearts with a stunning debut in 1987's Street Fighter. Built like an enormous, gangly pirate, Sagat was all that stood between the player's red-head Ryu and the title of "Strongest Street Fighter in the World!" Alright! Since then Sagat has enjoyed a fickle personality back-and-forth. In some games he's a mercenary monster, out for a kill. In others he's the slighted consummate martial artist, desperately trying to claw back his pride. Regardless of indecisive Capcom character direction, he's always just the best.


Thursday, 26 March 2009

Appreciate Ikaruga

I've been playing Ikaruga. Developed from scratch by a team of just three people, all of which are surely ten feet tall, Treasure's electrifyingly fond farewell to Sega's Dreamcast has since put in an appearance on Nintendo's Gamecube system, with a HD tweaked dress-up currently available on Xbox Live. Ikaruga is a top-down shooter designed around an astoundingly simple conceit: the player can alter the polarity of their spaceship, swapping between invincible and vulnerable, depending on the enemies they face. With the vehicle set to black, dark bullets can be absorbed to bolster max-out screen clears, but white bullets are deadly. Set to white and the reverse is true, you can guzzle bright bullets, but black shots will whittle down your tries.

This elegant system then has a layer of wilful danger woven into it; opposite polarity shooting does double damage to enemies. Tease enough for the player to constantly want to reject relative comfort for a shot at high return peril time. Even when you do elect to play it safe, there's that constant nagging that you are only playing the game half right, that you aren't making enough of your kills. You didn't chain that! In a genre fraught with inch perfect manoeuvering, and endless Goliath showdowns, Ikaruga is a rare beast in that it makes you want to immerse yourself in quick switch superplay. It makes you want to pursue life threatening situations, rather than avoid them. Surviving just isn't enough. Clearing screens by the skin of your teeth is only half right. Unless you're ricocheting through light and dark colour sets, you're just not playing.

This is what you're aiming at:

Hiroshi Iuchi
Atsutomo Nakagawa
Yasushi Suzuki
G. rev

Apprentice V: Quest for Peace

Is there a lot to say? The candidates might as well be VO5 hunk-puppets at this stage, their personalities are so undefined. I didn't really catch many names, and it's hard to slander reaction-shot facial expressions. By God I shall try though! King Alan kicked things off by making reference to the candidates' similarity to bongo drums. We were all thinking it! Hopefully by series end we can expect to see him thumping them all upside the head, shaking out sin rhythms for Margaret and Nick to cavort to. Lusty so-and-sos.

Thankfully, there was a rash of regional accents in evidence. Always a pleasure. It's nice to dream that the BBC cast their candidate net a little wider than London and Essex. I think there may even be a gentleman from Liverpool. I look forward to cheering him on, provided he's not a total dunce, in which case I will resent and hate him for bringing shame on us.

The task last night had a credit-crunch whiff of start-up business. The candidates had a scant amount of cash with which to buy cleaning products. Backs heaving with soaps and suds, they ran off into the night (morning) to pester and harass the general public. "I'm fucken washing that." they'd say. Cameras drilling disapproving holes into the heads of anyone who so much as dared object.

The boys split into two teams, one decided there was a Victoriana shaped hole in the cleanliness market and zipped off to shine shoes; the other thought it best to make deals with cab drivers they couldn't quite honour. I don't know about you, but I don't tend to think of Taxi Drivers as great grue for my evilly lazy cleaning ambitions. Their job is driving, bullshitting, and being hard-faced. Hardly conductive to half-arsery are they? That was before the boys left car doors wide open whilst they blasted the world with jet-fast streams of H20. Good thinking dick holes! Soak the fucken seats while you're at it. I'm surprised King Cab Hard Face didn't ask for a massive discount. Maybe cab drivers can only round up?

By way of contrast, the girls pissed all their money up the wall on tat, then bullied the life out of military grade Limo drivers. Screeching "fuck yous!" when their outlandish pricing strategy was shot down. I say strategy, it was more like the mathematics of a bully. They needed £300, and by God you'd better pay them it for something. Both teams were so hyped up on swaggering bullshittery, they didn't bother to actually try and do the job. Instead they contented themselves with a convincing sort of impression. One eye on the task, the other on sniffing out any hint of weakness in their team-mates.

In the end it was Droopy love child Anita that went.

It was her fault the girls had overspent. Apparently. Anita's fleeting representation on the show boiled down to a series of frowning grumble faces, and toady law-man politicking in the board room. Such caricature was cast off for Adrian Chiles' aftershow You're Fired! in which she came off as a bit jolly hockey sticks.

Did you watch Charlie Brooker's new series Newswipe after that on BBC4? That was very good too.

Cat Shit One!

Freshly minted trailer tease for a potential Japanese CG TV series entitled Cat Shit One. Let's hope it gets picked up! Loosely based on a late 90s Motofumi Kobayashi manga series, that later shored up in the West as Apocalypse Meow, Cat Shit One tells a Maus alike tale of bunny rabbit GIs entrenched in a hideous theatre of war. Despite the apparent flippancy of casting rabbits in a brutal war yarn, Cat Shit One: Manga is a thoroughly researched ground's-eye-view of 'Nam tours - expect to see panel borders heaving under military slang explanations.

Cat Shit One: TV though has shifted series focus away from the Vietnam war and onto our very own modern take: The War on Terror (should that have a trademark do you think?). Charlie Cat replaced with Abdul Camel.

Choke! At the soft toy atrocity! Thrill! As cute bunny rabbits eviscerate other fluffy animals with startling efficiency! Wonder! Are the opening seconds meant to parody the Metal Gear Solid 4 trade trailers?

Source. More sauce.

Behold! The Fallen?

Unsubstantiated writer rumours are whirling around the Internets that Leonard Nimoy is in the picture to voice an ultra Decepticon dick named The Fallen in Transformers 2. Given the close proximity to release, they're really after some fine, nuanced performances if this stuff is still up in the air eh? Hater hate aside, it would be just great if Nimoy could assign some yack yacken to Transformers 2. Nimoy previously delivered a stellar performance (I'm serious) as Galvatron in 1986's The Transformers: The Movie. In the 86 feature, Galvatron is the intergalactic plaything of a planet sized Devil transformer. A reborn, re-tinkered super-identity for robo-fuhrer Megatron, Galvatron spends the entirety of the running time being a weaselly terminator with renegade ambitions. There's never much of a sense that Galvatron has any time for his subordinates, or master, instead pushing his own newly upgraded agenda. Given Nimoy's possible recasting, can we expect The Fallen to be a monstrously powerful ubermech with third-party ambition? I do hope so. Crush everybody The Fallen!

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Tales of the Black Freighter

Snaking in and out of key moments in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen is a Brecht bleak pirate yarn from in-universe comic Tales of the Black Freighter. A marooned mariner desperately tries to make his way home ahead of the nightmarish Black Freighter, an enormous galleon that doubles as a roaming, ship-sacking, hell-thing. Stranded in hungry waters, the sailor plumbs deplorable depths to try and survive long enough to save his family and town - apparently next on the Freighter's hit list. Designed to comment on and contrast the actions of the various leads, Black Freighter is yet another layer to an obsessively composed fiction.

Quite unable to feasibly work in a live action element that reflects this metafictioning, the producers of Watchmen: The Movie hit upon the idea of rendering it as a simultaneous released DVD animated movie. In theory it keeps the fans happy, whilst happily existing as self-perpetuating product, taking up shelf space in HMV and Borders as purchasable advertising. It's the same model that saw Batman: Gotham Knight crowding shop space in light of The Dark Knight's cinema release. Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter, as the DVD press release trumpets it, needn't be any good; which means it is all the more exciting that it is good. Very good, in fact.

This Black Freighter tale can proudly stand alongside the For the Man Who Has Everything episode of Justice League Unlimited as superior examples of Alan Moore adaptations. Gerard Butler's manic performance as the sailor spews out largely unmolested tract, lingering on the detail and incident of a rapidly maddening mind. The narration a pounding motor, driving a psychologically abusive overview of this hero's suffering. Liberties have been taken elsewhere, the role of First Mate Ridley has been greatly expanded, becoming a projected counterpoint to the Captain's decaying faculties. An understandable embellishment considering the tiny amount of actual panel room attributed to the story. Flying under the money-man radar, animated Black Freighter - like the aforementioned JLU episode - is left tonally intact, with only minor structural tailoring for a new medium.

A few too-crisp colours aside, this short thankfully does not possess the bright, pastel breeziness of modern computer afflicted animation. Instead, Black Freighter is awash with pitiless blacks and rotting greens. It's a departure from John Higgins' luminously putrid four-colour work on the comic, but well in keeping with the found item mandate that hangs over this and the Under The Hood documentary supplement. Likewise, Dave Gibbons' minutely composed figures are gone too, replaced with an in-era animation work that recalls European long form works like 1981's Heavy Metal. The relentless grue on display only adds to this effect, perfectly presenting Black Freighter as some long out-of-print video nasty. Tales of the Black Freighter is twenty odd minutes of near intolerable horror. You couldn't ask for more.

We are promised that at some stage in the near future this animated short will be woven into the larger form of Snyder's Watchmen, for a bells and whistles Ultimate Edition set. It's difficult to see how that could work, both tonally and mechanically. Are we literally going to dive into the newsstand patron's confused train of thought as he muddles through the impenetrable comic? Bernie, the reader, repeatedly states that he's straining to make any sense of his chosen pamphlet (perhaps a Moore aside about his audience?). I shouldn't think quite that much nitpicking consideration has gone into this decision, it is just another way to placate any fans left wanting by the film. As if straining to fit even more adaptation into the movie will somehow make it a more worthwhile endeavour.

Frankly, from this position of total final edit ignorance, it seems a disservice to both mediums. It perpetuates the strangled notion that comics are simply printed storyboards just begging to be enlivened with Hollywood money. On the motion picture end of things, it's an incongruous cartoon forcing its way in, interrupting the film's already idiosyncratic narrative. In-joke asides for the ruthlessly pigheaded. Does Watchmen: The Movie need thirty minutes of bleed-in animated misery? Or should this adaptation be allowed to stand on its own terms? I think this tale from the Black Freighter is quite capable of the latter. I will admit though, it would be a kick to hear Butler's agitated ramblings ringing out over boiling point 1980s New York. If it simply has to be in another edit, Black Freighter should bleed into the film, rather than interrupt it.

I was originally going to close out this review bemoaning the unethical business practices on DC's behalf that have put paid to us seeing anymore such work. Moore was rumoured to be interested in expanding a line of Black Freighter titles as a concession to DC's sequel demands. The comic world sincerely needs a putrid, frothing, pirate serial and Moore was well placed to deliver. With my thinking cap on though, it seems quite apparent that a lot of these ribald impulses have found their way into Moore's Kevin O'Neill collaboration The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. The forthcoming three issue volume Century respins The Threepenny Opera as an unfolding horror, for example. Besides that, I'm also looking forward to taking receipt of the first issue of Jamie Delano and Max Fiumara's alarming new seven seas serial Rawbone. Read Joe McCulloch's review here.

There's more tales in that Black Freighter.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Happy Akira Kurosawa Day!

Today marks the 99th anniversary of master film director Akira Kurosawa's birth. Kurosawa is best known in the West for a cycle of black and white samurai flicks, usually featuring the immense talent of Toshiro Mifune, and made for Godzilla's Toho Studio. Kurosawa began his directorial career during the second world war, making a series of nationalistic, pro-Japanese films like Judo vs Boxing epic Sanshiro Sugata Part II.

Following the war, Kurosawa began to focus on contemporary Japan, marshaling Tokyo ashes crime thrillers like Police procedural Stray Dog to the screen. It was 1950's period memory fuzz drama Rashomon that brought him, and Japanese cinema, to a place of wider international acceptance. The film won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and an Honourary Academy Award the following year.

Kurosawa followed that success with a glut of stone cold classics like class-clash siege template Seven Samurai; and Yojimbo, the neanderthal film example of all taciturn loner narratives. In 1985 at the age of 75, Kurosawa completed his final samurai epic Ran, then the most expensive film ever produced in Japan. Kurosawa continued to direct smaller, personal features like Dreams and Madadayo well into his 80s.

Below is one of my favourite scenes from 1961's Yojimbo. Toshiro Mifune plays Sanjuro, a rudderless ronin who privately resolves to exterminate two warring gangs who plague a poor, brutalised town. His methods include treachery, political manoeuvring and, when pressed, overwhelming swordsmanship.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Sketch Sunday: Tyrant and Licker

Resident Evil's final boss is the experimental super-soldier named Tyrant. Devised by the sinister shuffle-pox spreading Umbrella Corporation to be an obedient stooge monster; Tyrant celebrated his test tube birth by slaying his de facto Daddy, lethally thrashing about a secret laboratory, and doggedly hounded the player until several surface-to-air rockets were sent his way.

I've just began playing around with a Pentel Brush pen. I'm still getting used to it, so please excuse the general sloppiness.

As a special Mothering Sunday bonus, here's another sketch that isn't strong enough to post all on its lonesome. Aren't I good to you? Resident Evil 2 theorised a situation in which zombies began to feed off each other, this mass infection daisy-chain orgy-biting beget crawling roof lurker the Licker. Although not obviously inferior to the deranged scrawl presented above, I was disappointed with this Licker render mainly because I quite forgot it isn't supposed to have any eyes or eye holes. Curses. Also! The creature looks like it's posed leaning on a bar. perhaps between featured game appearances. What's he drinking? Something poppy.

This little disappointment probably best recalls the abortive Newborn monster from Alien: Resurrection, rather than the pinnacle of the Resident Evil bestiary. Ho hum.

Really enjoying the pen though.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Running Man

You'd be hard pressed to find a mainstream action film more callous than 1987's The Running Man. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a former government stooge, framed by his superiors for having a twinge of morality on an euthanise-the-poor mission. An enemy of the state, he is cast into a gladiatorial TV show for the dribbling mob's amusement. The film opens with Schwarzenegger refusing orders, then battering most of his crewmates prone. This mutiny sequence is replayed throughout in various forms. Sometimes as it happened, more often in an edited form meant to portray Schwarzenegger as the blood-thirsty architect of the massacre. Regardless of intent, the sequence is always told with the same impossible shot geography, suggesting that in this dystopian future surveillance is total, and shooting for the edit.

Schwarzenegger's role is especially interesting because the script has to juggle Ben Richards the sympathetic lead character, as well as the star's emerging action persona. Schwarzenegger's needs easily take precedence. By this point, he was practically a sub-genre. As such, Ben Richards has no moral dimension what-so-ever. He rejects his makeshift friends' revolutionary ideas as nonsense, instead pragmatically fighting simply to stay alive. Schwarzenegger plays Richards as a modern interpretation of his Conan character - lethal musculature possessed of a calculating mind. He revels in the slaughter, quipping and goading the brutalised, WWF Stalker characters sent to terminate him.

When Schwarzenegger is offered a deal by the network to become a featured Stalker it is almost surprising he doesn't take it. Instead he obliterates the camera allowing the link-up, making horrific threats on the lives of his tormentors. Schwarzenegger's Ben Richards is not a character, he's pure plot progression. He powers through lethal situations to advance the tale, ticking off the 'Boss' characters as he goes. It's no surprise that The Running Man inspired countless scrolling beat 'em up video games. It's a great action template - a merciless hero battling impossible odds. In the entirety of the film there is only one hint of a human personality behind the one-man gulag - the way in which Richards interacts with Maria Conchita Alonso's Amber.

Pre-capture, Schwarzenegger takes her hostage and hurries her to a concrete airport in an effort to effect an escape. His hand rests menacingly around her neck in a kind of GI Joe death-grip. He explains it away as insurance, should she try to get away from him. If she gets any ideas he can snap her neck like a twig etc. Much later in the film, after Alsono's character has been betrayed by her superiors and cast into the game, she becomes Schwarzenegger's ally and notional love interest. At the film's conclusion the two embrace having destroyed the terrible network that propagates the show. They kiss and detach from each other, standing eye to eye. Schwarzenegger's hand snakes up into the same, clasping hold, before leading her away into the sunset. Domination. It's always been his kink.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Yes please! Batman and Robin

Promo image for Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's forthcoming Batman and Robin. The All Star Superman duo are reclaiming that phrase! Due June, the series will feature the Battle for the Cowl winner as the Dark Knight Detective; as well as, what appears to be, Damian Wayne as a scowling, rumble ready Robin. Morrison has indicated that the team-up will be a role reversal piece with this new Batman taking a lighter approach, whilst this bad-ass Boy Wonder seethes. Count me in! Damian Wayne is a wonderfully wonky addition to the Bat-Family. Born of a techno tryst between Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, Damian is a pampered pre-teen nutter, who thought nothing of sucker-punching current Robin: Tim Drake off a stuffed dinosaur. Meaning to impress, this attempt on Drake's life was Damian's bid to claim his rightful position as Son of Batman. Can't have strays muddling up his heir apparent dynamic, can he? It's the assassin's way! Quite unconcerned with any issues of morality or restraint, Damian is an adorable little vandal.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Sketch Sunday: Lex Luthor

Debuting in April 1940 with a shock of red hair, Lex Luthor is the genius science villain to Superman's Sun God muscle might. Lex's roots perhaps lie in Siegel and Shuster's pre-Kryptonian 1933 strip The Reign of Super-Man, in which a barmy scientist recruits a down-and-out for telepathic experimentation. The resulting Super-Man clashes with his creator, spelling doom for one, and poor housing for the other. Luthor began his career in published criminality as an arch imperialist, manoeuvering fictional European countries into disastrous wars from his floating city hide-out. Lex's Silver Age adventures frequently featured bank smashing robots, and grateful alien races who have cast him as their cultural lynchpin. Lately though he's more likely to be running for US Presidency, or just involved in some dastardly big business. Unless Grant Morrison's writing him of course, in which case he's back to being a belligerent brain box. Phew! It was touch and go there for a minute.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Jersey Gods #1 & 2

Starting out as a couple of War-God-on-Earth culture shock shorts in the second Popgun anthology, Glen Brunswick and Dan McDaid's Jersey Gods graduates to serial pamphlet.

Brunswick weaves the tale of Zoe, a vaguely neurotic suburban princess, and her chance encounter with celestial shit-kicker Barock. Romance ensues after Zoe snaps her hero out of a mall set beat-down funk; it's a pleasant twist on damsel rescue, Barock seems quite happy to drift off into The Pact dream oblivion until Zoe has a word and pecks his cheek. Elsewhere, both leads are allowed breathing room to tease out some character dressing. Each of the duo finds themselves involved in machinations they have little control over: Barock battling nasty politico celestials; Zoe dealing with avant garde fashionistas that simply must be fawned over. The dispiriting jobs theme runs right through the piece, even the villains lament their knackered lot, lending the piece a pleasant twenty something malaise. Couple that with some snappy colloquialisms and you've got a fine foundation for a daffy class divide romance. It's issues 8 and 9 of Jack Kirby's New Gods reimagined by a sentimental hipster.

artwork crackles throughout both issues, his sketchy lunk frames framed by frantic, expressive brush strokes. It's not unlike Darwyn Cooke as inked by Frank Espinosa; there's even hints of Bill Sienkiewicz's frenzied fever lines in a pin-up reveal of cosmic viking troublemaker Minog. Colourist Rachelle Rosenberg's palette ranges from dense, frosty earth tones for New Jersey, and singed yellows for the radiating God-towns. The insistence on bold, primary colour choices allowing McDaid's contribution to really shine. Jersey Gods is exciting, fluid work, peppered with some wonderfully literal sound effects, and no small amount of charm.

"Christ almighty, it's the goddamned Watchmen!"

Terrorists are going to blow up Lady Liberty's brains! If you found Zack Snyder's fisticuffs take on Watchmen a trifle galling, wait until you read Sam Hamm's 1988 draft. Yikes! Highlights include a bungled terror take-down leading to the superhero cock-block, Rorschach literally being a quipping Connery-mold action hero, and Veidt's masterwork becoming a spot of time tunneling. Burton Batman scripter Hamm was briefly on-project when Fox were flirting with bank-rolling the film. Joel Silver was producing, with Ahnoldt Schwarzenegger in mind for nuclear physicist Dr Manhattan - no word if he was to be dubbed for the sake of understanding anything that was coming out of his mouth, a' la Hercules in New York. All this was pre-Terry Gilliam, who immediately tossed Hamm's script out the window when he signed on. Hamm's script is quite the cultural artefact - Watchmen viewed through an 80s action prism. All snarky declarations, and postured threats. "They'd better!"

For dessert, here's a brief discourse on the changes Warners asked Snyder to make. Warner Brothers are not in the business of depth! It's a miracle anything even remotely good gets made isn't it?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Zeed Again...

Wordy preamble for 8-bit Master System sequel The Cyber Shinobi, a minor effort by Sega to say the least. Jerkily contort a hunched, despondent Joe Musashi through six stages of flickery seizure sprites and criminally inaccurate collision detection! What fun. Despite being dreadful, Cyber Shinobi has a stranglehold on my imagination, partially inspiring the half remembered title of this blog. There's a vague hint of premise promise, macabre ninjutsu mixed with techno-brutality like some kiddy cool adaptation of Elektra: Assassin. I remember sitting there fixated, lurching on with Joe on a hand-me-down black and white TV, desperate to smash that test tube brain boss to pieces. Children do not discriminate by quality. The closest thing to proof of concept this title has is this elongated intro sequence: pop science terror spiels accelerating into a prodding, sneaking, electro pulse theme. Techno-Ninja prowls out of sight!

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Sketch Saturday: Superman

Originally conceived to battle street-level social injustice rather than cosmic tyranny, the Man of Steel first bounded onto comic page in June 1938's Action Comics #1. Back then he was a depression era super-saint, battling crooked slumlords and bent politicos. Superman was one part Franklin Roosevelt to two parts circus strongman. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman weathered the remainder of the twentieth century in many different forms, becoming a full blown American icon. He's up there with Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola.

For this scratchy take on Kal-El of Krypton I wanted to stress his alien qualities; hence the tall, wiry frame and tiny, probing, lizard eyes.


Sitting there with Zack Snyder's $150 million adaptation of Watchmen unfolding, I couldn't shake an anecdote told by Paul Thomas Anderson on his Boogie Nights DVD commentary. Anderson recounts the initial public screening, and the unfortunate crowd reaction to William H Macy's character finally snapping, and murdering, his philandering porn star wife:

"The first time we showed this movie to an audience was in Westwood, sort of a college town, UCLA is there, and it was the first preview of the movie. We're showing the movie, everybody's going along, they're having a good time. It's the first half of the movie, it's fun, it's great. Everybody's dancing. 'Oh! Disco music! We love it! Look at the funny clothes and the hair!' You know? And this scene comes up and Macy goes to get the gun, and when he got the gun, you have to keep in mind recruited audiences are just sort of maniacs in general, they're all pumped up with a false description of the movie.

Anyway, they're there, Macy gets the gun and this crowd of college kids cheers when he gets the gun. Now, I sank in my seat you know? I sank in my seat and I thought, well, what have I done? I have really, really fucked up. I've done something wrong in storytelling, I've guided this towards being a funny moment somehow, but it's not what I intended. How did I do this? I really started to panic. And actually my friend Aimee Mann who is just brilliant, one of my idols, was sitting next to me. She, actually we've had major conversations about violence in movies and this sort of things and she was sitting there and she just sort of grabbed my hand and said: 'Not your fault'. But it didn't matter. I sank in my seat.

Now, then he shoots them, and they cheered even louder, and I sank even further in my seat and I thought well I have fucked up big time. I have ruined this. How did this happen? And I can't possibly fix it, this is one big long shot. Well then Macy walks out and he shot himself in the face, and they shut the fuck up real quick. They weren't laughing, and they weren't cheering, and it was dead silence, and I thought good. Okay. I've done my job okay. It's them that's fucked up. You know? It's really the moment where you blame the audience: 'no, you're wrong.' All he did was got a gun, I didn't tip my hat towards this, and I'm glad you got punished by him shooting himself because you liked Macy, and all this violent shit just happened, and don't cheer. Don't clap. It's not funny."

That's the biggest problem with Snyder's Watchmen. He wants you to cheer. He wants you to applaud Rorschach and The Comedian. He does not want to punish you for liking them. These two are cast as face value bad ass superstars. A glut of their rough, unseemly, edges are filed away, leaving vaguely relatable macho action heroes. Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach is no longer a giggling, racist crank. In his narrated jounal entries we get the blunt force declarations that end Moore's sentences, but none of the ambling black poetry that precedes them. His brief scenes with the psychiatrist are delivered as a series of punchlines. His origin is raced through, screened as justification, rather than the absolute destruction of a personality. Rorschach's origin shouldn't be a Saw scene with child abuse dressing, it should be the yawning emptiness a vengeful, play-acting detective finds in fighting real, hidden, criminality. It mutates him. In Snyder's film there's very little sense that a Kovacs personality ever existed.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan's magnetic Comedian gets off lightly too. He gets to soothsay, without any of the underlining character irony. He's telling the 'truth', rather than painting over his own blackness. Comedian's most despicable moment is quickly manoeuvred onto an attendant character. There's less sense in the film that he wanted to execute his Vietnamese lover and child, more that he was specifically testing Manhattan. To me, as written, it was an on-spot justification to hide behind. Another mask for Eddy. Implicating someone else less amorally advanced as he. Another jab at the geeky Superman. Comedian's other despicable act, assaulting Sally Jupiter, gains a few notes of violent pornography, the one-sided brutalising presented as a kind of foreplay that gets out of control. I'm not quite sure if that complicates the sequence, or just makes it even more revolting. Probably both.

A useful mirror to Boogie Nights' Macy scene would be how Comedian deals with a rioting American crowd. His slow-motion plunge hangs in the air for a moment, the surrounding mob stunned rigid. Comedian breaks the brief detente by lashing out at the nearest woman, and it can't help but feel like a chuckle prompt for brutes. Irrelevant to proceedings, the woman tumbles out of frame never to be seen again. Comedian quickly tires of thumping civilians and begins firing his shotgun wildly into the crowd. There are no reaction shots. You're allowed to enjoy his tirade as a moment of taboo breaking action. When the camera pulls out to survey the destruction there's not a single body lying on the floor. There are no consequences to these events what-so-ever. Victims have evaporated like useless, defeated video game baddies.

Moore and Gibbons' piece worked hard to punish the reader for revelling in costumed mayhem. Each hero archetype was pushed and pulled to terrifyingly logical conclusions. In broad (non-Charlton) terms, Superman is a flake, with no connection to humanity. Batman is split between a homicidal street person with deeply worrying personal convictions, and an impotent schlub terrified by his kink. If you want to like them, then fine, but you should at least understand where they're coming from.

Still, how much needling grey area can actually be expected in a blockbuster? Little boys need hero projections to dribble to, not disturbing, soulless monsters. Would Warners ever bankroll a Summer superhero flick specifically designed to make an audience feel like shit? Arguably, they already have with The Dark Knight, but wasn't it Heath Ledger's death that allowed Christopher Nolan carte blanche to push that film as far as he did? No moneyman is going to demand any of Ledger's scenes be dropped. Tabloids drum it into us that he effectively ended his life to play that role, and people want to see as much of it as possible. It helps that Batman has international brand recognition too, something the until now read-only Watchmen lacks.

It's no revelation to state that Snyder utterly lacks the command of Moore, but enough of the events are up there on screen that if newcomers genuinely want to look and puzzle, they'll arrive at most of the more dispiriting conclusions. As cack-handed as Snyder's take often is, he has at least dragged the tale's dark frothing frame onto the screen. He must have fought countless up-hill struggles with the studio to do so. Reel off the feature's defining characteristics, and it quickly begins to sound like box-office krypotonite: It has an adult rating. It's still set in 1985. Cold War politics are stressed. The 'villain' isn't punished. Heroes do dreadful things.

It's not Snyder's fidelity that's wanting, it's how he understood, and was allowed to communicate that understanding that cripples the picture. It's not quite getting that people shouldn't be thinking of other, better, movies during big moments scored with second-hand music. It's not understanding that the new ending only makes Hollywood foreshadowing sense. It's not comprehending that the sequel flirting teased out in the film's dying seconds makes flabbergasting dunderheads of your formally sympathetic leads.

There are a handful of sequences that sing and shine though. Chief among these is the Dylan scored collage that runs over the opening credits. The 1940s Minutemen exploits are captured in a string of Republic serial vignettes that mutate into this universe's vandalised super-history. We learn that costumed heroics have infected every inch of this world's twentieth century. Nat King Cole drifts wistfully over scenes of pitiless termination. Manhattan's time-out on Mars is allowed to exist as a piece of character embellishment, and nothing more. Billy Crudup recounts his fractured timeline with a bored, softly spoken detachment. Pity the callous, scorned God. There's even a moment in the roundly despised Nite Owl / Silk Spectre tryst that touches on something vaguely lyrical - the couple do eventually stop having slow-motion Showgirls sex, their forms becoming agitated and beastly. The camera lingers on Spectre's fetish boots - Dan's kink going unpunished. For a brief moment it almost feels like an adult made this film.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Free Play! Resident Evil 5

Finally available this time next week is the long teased fifth installment of the Resident Evil series. Remember that first teaser trailer back in 2007? A demo has long been in circulation, popping up at trade fairs the world over, and currently available for download on whichever this-gen online platform you prefer. The demo is comprised of two short scenarios, Public Assembly and Shanty Town, each seemingly designed as an invisible tutorial sequence for the full game.

Public Assembly initially recalls the fantastic Resident Evil 4 demo issued with Famitsu's 2004 Capcom Special. Players hole up for as long as possible in a decrepit shack before a tank enemy puts in an appearance. Yikes! Unlike the Famitsu demo, this hut is bungalow and tactically unsound. Double yikes! There's no roof traversing or ladder kicking here. Players are inched out into the open where the must hustle between shacks and machine refuse, dodging the doggedly insistent executioner zombie. Public Assembly's emphasis on constant move and bait means it plays like more a post-campaign Mercenaries stage than an elegant part of the main game. Players are left scrambling about for too long, with too weak weaponry, desperately waiting for a chopper to arrive and end the assault. The Axe enemy has a tendency to gravitate towards one player character, and exclude the other, too. If it's your Chris monopolising the attention, AI Sheva can be at least relied upon to patch you up after any hits. If it's Sheva that catches his eye, it's worth sticking close, as her death spells game over. Capcom wants you to take care of your buddy!

Much less action packed is Shanty Town, a brief mid-level explore excerpt capped with a Boss encounter. The lesson learned here is: steal all of Sheva's decent armoury, and pack mule her with unwanted, but useful, items. Take that MP5 and leave her with just a pistol! Flirty Capcom then deliberately places Sheva in calamitous danger as part of a sniping set piece. Confound it! The rifle you are assigned holds a pathetic number of shots, and can't even one-shot eliminate basic foes. You can try using your pistol, but it's difficult to get accurate hits on the flesh cascade enveloping Sheva. Is this the end for our intrepid colonialists? You needn't have worried. Thankfully, AI Sheva is adept at staying out of trouble. As long as you can at least aim at the advancing hordes, she's able to nimble away and open your advance barrier. Similarly, when the emaciated chainsaw chap puts in an appearance at chapter's end, Sheva traverses the tiny winding alleyways you're funnelled into with ease. Although again hamstrung by pitifully weak guns, it's reassuring to see that the AI character can keep itself out of game ending trouble. Phew!

As a taster of Resident Evil 5, it's difficult to see why Capcom elected to issue these two stages in this condition. They do teach you some presumably useful tactics, but the levels selected often end up a bit of a chore. The short shrift on weapon set doesn't help matters - your shotgun evaporating between stages - who wants to scrape through a demo? Doesn't that send difficulty alarm bells ringing in casual ears? The default control system is a bit of a muddle too, it attempts to ape a Western third-person action set-up, which ends up further exposing Resident Evil 5's control eccentricities. In Capcom's defence, the series is billed as survival horror, not cover-dash action. A more flexible move-set invites faster, better armed enemies, dissolving the whole enterprise into yet another round of entrenched space marine battling. I found it best to instantly junk defaults and head straight for control setup A - the same button mapping as Resident Evil 4.

Some trepidation then, but who can resist a HD Remix of Resident Evil 4? Roll on next week's spooky Friday!

Alan Moore reads Rorschach

One last stab at Watchmen before I see it, and hopefully get a review out. Here's Alan Moore narrating Rorschach's journal. Unfortunately Jackie Earle Haley's interpretation seems to have gotten stuck somewhere between Clint growl, and Bale's Batman sneer. Never mind. The author's reading is alive with prowling, despondent, psychosis. I wonder how much of this will be used in the film? It's wonderfully punishing to listen to. If you're not completely selling the character as deeply damaged, as Moore is here, the word tumbling could come off as a sixth form stab at hard boiled 'tec talk.

Best as I can tell, the images are from the recent minimalist animation Motion Comic piece, chatter sourced from The Mindscape of Alan Moore documentary.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Free Play! Watchmen: The End is Nigh

Under review is the demo version available on Xbox Live. I have little interest in forking out for the full episode. We were promised something along the lines of Mayfair's largely forgotten Who Watches the Watchmen? role playing scenario. That game, an award winning Alan Moore collaboration, featured minor Minuteman Captain Metropolis bungling a clandestine scheme to draw the abortive Crimebusters team together. Machiavelli he ain't. What did we get instead? Squaresoft's The Bouncer, oozing warts and all, in Snyderverse drag. Ho hum! So out goes everyone's favourite homosexual racist Nelson Gardner (and all attendant side-story manoeuvering), in comes grime sheen interpretations of Nite Owl II and Rorschach, battling up and down nondescript prisonscapes. Lead pipes, and fun, perpetually out of reach.

That's right, Deadline games have chosen to interpret Moore and Gibbons' obsessively layered monument to detail as that simplest of gaming genres: the scrolling brawler. The studio have also elected to execute this transition with a complete absence of flair, presenting a game that is mechanically shallow even when compared to 1989's Neanderthal example Final Fight. To their credit, Deadline did remember to mix up the rote thumping with the occasional switch pull sequence. Remember folks, pressing buttons in sequence with on-screen prompts counts as puzzle solving! What generosity!

Players choose between Dreiberg and Kovacs, a slither of differences existing between the characters; a two player option is also available. Snyder actors Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earl Haley have recorded some dialogue snatches scattered about gameplay, the exchanges casting Moore's characters as a thug take on Hawk and Dove. Kovacs spills laboured right-winging rhetoric, while Dreiberg bumbles around lefty tract. It's both a nice nod to Rorschach's Ditko derived beginnings, and a chronic mishandling of Moore's text. Indigestion bubbled when Nite Owl started to fall-in with Rorschach's confused 'fuck everybody!' mutterings.

Also worth mentioning is the motion comic cut-scene sequence in which a faithfully rendered (lifted?) Dave Gibbons' Rorschach interacts with the movie design Nite Owl II. It's rather strange seeing the rounded, naturalistic Gibbons' figure in such close proximity to the spiky Bat flavoured redesign. Flat and unexciting for the most part, the short is at least faithful to John Higgins' bold, poisonous palette.

Watchmen: The End is Nigh
's only real highlight is the effect suffering repeated beatings has on the in-game camera - the view cants as if the player were deep in a 60s Batman supervillain liar. Grasping, I know. File under Stink, for Stinker.

Wonder Woman

After two contractual obligations and a misfire, the DC Universe animation imprint brings us Wonder Woman. Although part of DC's holy trinity, Wonder Woman has never come close to matching her compatriots Superman and Batman for big screen interest. Instead Princess Diana's made do with a supporting role in sundry animated series, and a high-camp TV serial starring the pneumatic Lynda Carter. Created by woman worshipping psychologist William Moulton Marston to be a female might ideal, Wonder Woman has always danced a fine line between feminist-ish icon, and light bondage fantasy figure. It is to director Lauren Montgomery's credit that neither portrayal is outright ignored.

Moulded out of clay by the scorned Queen Hippolyta, Keri Russell's Amazonian Princess longs to ditch her plush paradise island and explore the world of men. An opportunity arises when letchy American super-pilot Steve Trevor drops out of the sky and custom demands he be returned. Male lead Trevor, voiced by the drawling Nathan Fillion, is cast as a flirty foil to Diana. His attempts at wooing withering under a harsh, Amazonian glare. He's as much a plucky side-kick as he is a love interest. Initially curious, Diana's sojourn into man's world eventually inspires disgust. She is revolted by how fey non-Amazonian women allow themselves to be; brief solace found teaching a little girl how to pulverise her male playmates at stick-fighting. It's not all gender clash comedy though, Alfred Molina's softly spoken war-God Ares is on the loose, eager to bring about the downfall of man.

The most exciting quality of Wonder Woman: The Movie is it never forgets it's riffing on Greek myth-making. The arbitrary rules and petty cruelty of the uncaring Olympian pantheon pulses undercurrent to events, requiring heroes to commit infanticide and returning passed loved ones to hateful, hyper-mobile un-life. Most spiteful of all is Ares' pleading encounter with the revoltingly corpulent Hades. The War God grovelling for his freedom as Pluto heaps on unmentionable affronts. Four films in and the DC direct-to-DVD animation conveyor belt has finally delivered a piece that withstands comparison to the admittedly mighty Justice League Unlimited TV series. Wonder Woman is snappy, playful, and often alarmingly harsh. Next up for an animated origin yarn is Hal Jordan in Green Lantern: First Flight, again courtesy of Montgomery. Can't wait.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Tremble if ye be maining either of the grapple twins Abel and Seth in Street Fighter IV. Hong Kong's favourite son has a simple, repeatable, dirt-nap combination for those clone clods:

Yikes! Little Dragon would be proud. Wonder if the still absent Championship Edition patch will iron out these encore loops? Dash!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Kings of Dress-Up

Japanese cosplayers are just the best! Not only do they have company approved bankrupt threads, they also serve-up their character takes with acres of boundless enthusiasm. Here's two plucky young chaps recreating the tense fire rivalry between King of Fighters mainstay's Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami:

God bless 'em.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Sketch Sunday: Robin the Boy Wonder

The Sensational Character Find of 1940! Dick Grayson's Robin put in his first appearance in Detective Comics #38, a little under a year after Batman's crime-fight debut. Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, Robin brought an easily identifiable audience surrogate into the Bat-fold, lightening The Batman's grim urban procedurals. Dangling twitching giants from planes was out, team work was in! The Boy Wonder's immediate success sparked a slew of copycat sidekicking, forming a central tenet of the Golden Age of comics in the process. Although no longer Robin, the Grayson character still kicks it anti-crime, now operating under the much less exciting alias of Nightwing.

There's more than a little Burt Ward about this Robin, no bad thing considering not one live action portrayal has even come close to Ward's excitable punning brawler. He's always desperate for a scrap!