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Raggedy Adams is an alien dwelling in Birmingham, living vicariously through the flickering of a projector on a white screen. He's drank the Kool-Aid of modern cinema. Will you?

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance

7. Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance

Alternate Title: "Shiny Happy Alien Battling Robots Teen Force 2".

Cigarette intake since viewing: One, but only because of college stress.

Currently listening to: "Magnum Force" by Lalo Schifrin.

The Gist: Teens in mechs beat the crap out of aliens, have personality issues and listen to too much Radiohead... again.

The Experience: One of my unspoken goals with this blog is to champion films that people wouldn't ordinarily go see at the cinema, which is why this week I'm doing this review of a film out on DVD and not burbling on about Green Lantern like every other critic and their dog.

The film in question is the second installment in the ponderously titled Rebuild of Evangelion series, whose persistence in returning to the screen over a decade after the original series ended is matched only by it's increasingly mind-boggling titles and protracted gaps in the release schedule. In an age when sequels have to be churned out every eighteen months to two years to make as much money as possible before the bubble pops, Evangelion's rate of knots between domestic and international release would make a particularly lazy sloth or Duke Nukem Forever look speedy and efficient by comparison; Evangelion 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance for instance has been sitting around twiddling it's thumbs waiting for an dubbed release for TWO CUNTING YEARS. However, good things come to those who wait, and as with the previous installment, the time taken on the films has been well spent on giving everything the full HD makeover and ironing out little niggles like providing decent ADR material.

The premise I previously described waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in my review of the previous movie still largely fits: "It's (STILL) half past the future... Tokyo 3 is being attacked by the Angels, a race of unearthly behemoths intent on bringing about the end of humanity for… some reason. The only thing standing in the way of this happening is the titular Evangelion Unit 01, a bio-mechanical suit of powered armour which occasionally has a mind of its own, which is piloted by Shinji Ikari, typical teenager by day, agent of NERV and whiny bitch every other waking hour." Normally at this point in the review I'd say that it's probably a good idea to have seen the previous film first, but in Evangelion's case you may as well watch the whole series as well for all the good it will do. Shinji is still you're classic Luke Skywalker-esque fish-out-of-water protagonist, he's still shacked up with his hot commanding officer, his dad's still an incredible asshole, and he's still the only one standing in the way of total annihilation. Same as it ever was.

Whilst the overall arc of the film's story isn't massively different from the series, picking up roughly were the first left off but covering a condensed version of episodes 8-20, one of the main divergences from the original is that Shinji's character progression gets a bit more attention paid to it; whilst he still has all the charisma of a wet lettuce leaf as before, his constant whining has been toned down a bit, making him less of a pussy and more of a cunt.

We also get reintroduced to familiar characters such as serial womaniser/triple-agent Kaji (who, I might add, is responsible for me discovering that chicks dig pony-tails and stubble) and ball-busting Eva Unit 02 pilot Asuka, who likewise has been given a bit of a redrafted (i.e. changed drastically) character arc. Much of the appeal of Asuka in the series was her near-total belligerence towards Shinji interspersed with moments of angsty pubescent sexual tension which served to underpin her fractured personality, stunted emotional development and tangled family relationships. Here, we get precisely none of this, and whilst the post-credits teaser indicates she will inevitably be part of Evangelion 3.0 You Can (Not) Be Serious whenever that comes out, her fate at the end of the second act was a letdown and struck me as being dangerously close to a classic example of Women in Refrigerator syndrome, a bad habit that series overseer Hideaki Anno still hasn't outgrown.

The one genuine case of a completely new character is Mari, another Eva pilot/eccentric young girl who is in the film for all of 5 minutes at the start and 10 minutes towards the end. Whatever we're supposed to know or feel about her is never made clear, other than the fact she's a slightly more approachable (if no less weird) addition to the cast of gawky teens with personalities handpicked from the works of Oliver Sacks. The fact is, at this point, she is little more than fanservice: window dressing for the otakus and fanboys, another hot chick to collect the action figure of or to feature in slashfiction. In a franchise already top-heavy with gender stereotypes and a focus on teen sexuality that would make J.K. Rowling unsettled, it's difficult to find merit in there being even more women to objectify. We also get a bit more of resident nancy-boy Kaworu sitting on things with his shirt off for the lady-boy lovers, so let it be said that this film at least gives equal shrift to both the male and female fanwank demographics.

Still, this much has proven to me that, whilst the sturm und drang of the battles is suitably epic and the visuals are cleaner and executed better than ever, the franchise hasn't really matured in any meaningful way. For every step it takes towards developing the characters imaginatively, it takes two steps back by either remaining too slavish to the original plot or by not giving the characters ample motivation or traceable development. Plus the whole Shinji shower gag that worked in the series and was redone both in 1.0 and now creepily with Asuka in 2.0 is getting a bit repetitive and showing its age. And no matter how much gratuitous cleavage is on display, an uninitiated viewer really shouldn't have to take the online equivalent of a correspondence course to understand what the fuck is going on or why you should care.

BUT the fact that I keep coming back to the well that is Evangelion means that either I am irrevocably incapable of outgrowing my Pink Floyd and anime phase or that there is still something to be taken away from this film series as we reach the half-way mark. It's neither as childish and pandering as the Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Ohs of anime nor as mind-numbingly deep and ponderous as Akira or Ghost in the Shell; it's only handicap is its protracted history of fiddling with itself (literally and figuratively). I'm not saying this film will change your view on anime or make you a fan of the series, but it's a strong case for Evangelion becoming a genuine staple of the genre, jailbait T&A and all.

I drank the Kool-Aid, but I'd understand if it's not for you.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Social Network (Belated)

6. The Social Network

Alternate Title: "Confessions of a Billionaire Social Retard".

Cigarette intake since viewing: Zilch. Surprised as you probably are.

Currently listening to: "Egomania" by Elmo Sexwhistle.

The Gist: Jesse Eisenberg proves he is not a Michael Cera clone, Fincher gets hip and topical, and Aaron Sorkin finally penetrates my defences.

The Experience: What did you do when you first heard that there was going to be a film about Facebook directed by David Fincher? Chances are, if you are like most sane people, you would have done double, triple and quadruple-takes before dismissing it as yet another product-placement project that would probably never happen like the much touted film versions of Battleship or Monopoly or Halo (sorry people, but I’ll believe it when I see it). However, as Fight Club, Seven and Alien 3 proved, David Fincher is not only insane, but has that rare mercurial talent for making seemingly unfathomable concepts into masterful pieces of film. And with the script being penned by The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, you know that you’re in for something masterful.

The film, in typical biopic opening sequence tradition, sees Mark Zuckerburg (Jesse Eisenberg channelling Egon Spengler), a socially paraplegic Harvard student of seemingly unfathomable intellect, getting dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) for being… well, to be blunt, a needy asshole who is obsessed with kudos and being accepted by others. His response of getting hammered, writing a “fuck you” blog and putting together a webpage which quickly goes viral and crashes the campus servers brings him to the attention of preening ├╝ber-jocks Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played uncannily by Justice League reject Armie Hammer) and their weedy token nerd partner (Max Minghella, son of the late Anthony). They clue Zuckerburg in on their social network concept Harvard Connection, expecting him to come on board and help build it in return for a stake. Instead, Mark (arguably) takes their idea and goes on to set the groundwork for what would become Facebook. The rest, as they say, is recent history: lawsuits, lots of boardrooms and people screwing each other over, under and sideways.

As a primer, I should note that I am by no means a member of Aaron Sorkin’s faithful fanclub; I’ve seen exactly none of The West Wing and the only one of his screen credits I’m familiar with is A Few Good Men, and even that I haven’t seen in years or all the way through. However, what is evident from scene one is that he knows how to make two hours of people sitting in a room having rapid-fire conversations riveting. Likewise, whilst some have cited the film’s sexing up of Zuckerburg and company’s antics as being an example of creative license, the fact that the spiky central figure of Zuckerburg is able to come across as sympathetic in spite of his almost appalling inability to relate to anyone is an extraordinary feat. However in the hands of Jesse Eisenberg, we are able to understand, if not necessarily accept, his flawed but insightful take on relationships and communication.

In a movie full of great supporting characters, standouts take the form of Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, Mark’s long-suffering partner and friend, who later sues him for screwing him out of the company he helped build, and Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker, the bad-boy Pied Piper who leads Zuckerburg to fame, fortune, and ultimately, loneliness.

But the character that penetrates every inch of this film, more than any other, is the score by Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Harking back to the moody ambience of Broken and The Downward Spiral and the layered, dirge-like instrumentation of The Fragile, it is a perfect companion to a character study of someone who gains the world but still struggles to find something approaching happiness.

Raggedy Adams drank the Kool-Aid. So should you.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

7. X-Men: First Class

Alternate Title: "Austin Powers Meets the Superfriends".

Nicotine intake since viewing: Two pieces of nicotine gum.

Currently listening to: "Summertime Blues" by Guitar Wolf/”Psyche Rock” by Pierre Henry.

The Gist: Mutants get a prequel with some ‘60s kitsch and retcons for all. Fifth time lucky?

The Experience: Since my glowing review of Scott Pilgrim pretty much sucked all the critical juice out of me last year and my return to college last September, many of the movies worth reviewing ended up in my ponderously huge To Do pile. However, unable to put it off further, I've deigned to return to the world of movie blogging on the proviso that I get all the really positive things about X-Men: First Class out of the way first. It's well cast, beautifully shot and features stand-out performances from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto respectively. The visuals and effects are pretty and involving if a little bit familiar to long-term fans of the series and there are cameos and references to the comics and other films for those that care about that sort of thing, and in spite of all the mean things I'm about to say, it's at the very least the best Marvel movie to come out of Fox since the first installment. Right, that's the good news. Let's talk shitiness.

As anyone (and especially my therapists) will probably be able to tell you, my relationship with the X-Men films is at best complicated and at worst totally fucking mental. At the core is an interesting if well-worn concept and the seemingly endless permutations of the core line-up is a license to print money as far as comics go, and whilst some people trumpet on about the Spider-Man movies being better, (in spite of them actually being rather formulaic in comparison,) X-Men was the one that proved that people would pay to see a bunch of weirdos in leather slicing, blasting and hitting each other for 2 hours without feeling slightly dirty afterwards. So here we are, after two good entries, one iffy but not without merit third and then the abortive shit sandwich that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine (this series’ obsession with pretentious subtitles has no end in sight), staring down the barrel of the latest offering, X-Men: First Class, a prequel/reboot/origin story to the only Marvel property Fox seems to have any clue how to keep going.

The plot starts as it means to go on, by shamelessly mining footage from the first film's opening, wherein we get a nice neat little reminder that the boy who would be Magneto started off as a concentration camp inmate, and showing how his powers are tortured into maturation by arch-dickspurt Nazi doctor Kevin Bacon shooting his mother in the head. Fast-forward to 1962 where we meet a young Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy and characterised here as a young Oxford professor who just happens to be able to read minds, which he demonstrates by (wait for it) drinking people under the table and hitting on girls despite the disapproving looks of Mystique, here taking the form of Jennifer “Winter’s Bone” Lawrence, and weirdly retconned as his sort-of adopted sister whom he looks after in a totally platonic way, if you can believe that for two seconds. McAvoy’s Xavier distinguishes himself right off the bat by being what the filmmakers clearly thought would be a hip, laddish, fun-loving version of the character to contrast with the serenity of Patrick Stewart’s performance but mostly just comes off as a bit of a twat, a David Cameron-esque toff trying to fit in with the proles; it's only McAvoy's own charm and wit that keeps this element of the character from defining him and despite a rocky start, he actually manages to imbue Xavier with depth, if a little at the expense of being able to relate to him in any realistic way.

Meanwhile, a now adult Magneto is travelling from one exotic locale to the next looking for Kevin Bacon (now going by the name Sebastian Shaw and kitted out like a homicidal Frank Sinatra) for revenge Mossad-style, little knowing that CIA agent Rose Byrne is also investigating his links to the hip and groovy Hellfire Club, a Las Vegas front for a secret society of mutants that seem to be in cahoots with top ranking officials in both America and Soviet Russia, and seeks out Xavier’s aid as he did his doctoral thesis on genetic mutation (and won’t shut up about how positively groovy it is; come on, James, you can do better than this!) in order to better deal with the threat of Shaw’s plans to blow up the world and rule whatever crawls out of the radioactive rubble.

Yes, this movie wears its inspirations very clearly on its sleeve and the main one at work here from a story and visual perspective seems to be “James Bond with superpowers”. You're probably thinking at this point "Adam, you Callipygian superman, what kind of talk is that? The sixties Bond was arguably the best era of the series and anything like it should be equally good." But that's the point: it isn't just like a Bond film, it IS a Bond film. True, the movie does keep a lot of the vestigial structure of the other X-Men films to aid fill in the various back-stories and introduce familiar elements such as Cerebro, whilst very clearly co-opting the plot progression (if not the tone or taut storytelling) of Batman Begins, but there is no denying the potent miasma of Connery-era Bond inflicting its influence over the proceedings for better or worse. Indeed, for most of the first act, Michael Fassbender’s accent when speaking English was almost indistinguable from the man himself, and I consider it no coincidence that he gets numerous opportunities to sneak around harbours, threaten henchmen eloquently and mack on Mystique despite clearly being a homosexual in later films.

This brings me neatly to what may or may not end up being the thing that decides the movie’s fate: continuity. Continuity is a tricky thing in comics; everyone - writers, artists, editors, readers have their own completely different relationship with continuity. For decades comics have been writing and rewriting the histories of its characters, to the point where it's often difficult to say what the definitive version of events is when any story can be instantly unravelled by a single retroactive erasure or alteration. And when it comes to films it’s even worse; very few comic book film franchises last longer than two films with the same director, let alone writing staff, and the X-Men series is no exception. Whilst X-Men 3 fumbled elements, leaving the possible continuation of the story on shaky ground, at least it didn’t take massive liberties with the principle character’s backst-oh wait, yeah, sorry, it did a bit. But still, it was nothing next to Wolverine’s brobdignagian level of idiocy. Not only did it completely skim over anything remotely like the “origin” element of the story, it was a film completely devoid of any kind of logical context for any of the action, taking place in a sort of weird uncanny valley version of the ‘70s that in its nondescript trappings looks too bland to belong to any particular era. For all its kitschy period fixtures and blatantly telegraphed influences, First Class at least knows when and where it’s meant to be set; what it seems to struggle with is why it’s there and not in the ‘70s (arguably much more suited to the character’s ridiculous outfits) or underwater or in space. Because the movie never quite makes the bold step of establishing itself as its own film in its own right with its own rules, cut off from previous attachments, it makes the whole “fresh start” aspect of the film seem a bit hollow.

Thing is, good continuity can only help a story, not make it. The inherent problem with any kind of television or film adaptation of a team-based intellectual property is that it's going to suffer from a potential lack of proper character development, and even the better X-Men films feel positively stuffed to the gills with cute little cameos and references that make the universe feel bigger and more inclusive but fails to deliver anything close to a long term character arc. For this reason in particular, X-Men: First Class was always going to a quintessential “popcorn” summer movie. The true measure of it, however, was whether it was going to stand on its own merits or sink slowly and painfully into the ocean of shittiness. And in spite of my complaints, it does. Mostly.

Okay, I admit I am being overly mean, but that's only because I know the series can do better. The movie itself isn’t bad; how could it be? Its best stuff is bloodily ripped off from the better parts of the series, none of the secondary characters apart from Nicholas Hoult’s young version of Beast are more than one-note, and the end is a foregone conclusion. But, it does still hold the distinction of being the first X-Men film I’ve seen since the original that was at least as enjoyable as when I saw it eleven years ago and hasn't made me want to gouge out the eyes of everyone involved. What I’m straining towards is a recommendation: it's not perfect, but what is? At its core, First Class is a giddy trip down memory lane, kept above water by a strong central pairing in McAvoy and Fassbender, and if you can get over the fact that it was never going to fit neatly into the pre-established film series it’s a fun little jaunt with plenty of chuckles, set pieces and mutant goings on to keep most people involved. If you’re expecting anything deeper than that, you’ve clearly not seen any of the X-Men movies due to being in some sort of cryogenic chamber for the past eleven years. In which case, welcome to the 21st century, puny homo sapien, we've been expecting you.
I drank the Kool-Aid. Maybe you should too. Or not.