Monday, September 8, 2014

Genre Genre Genre..

I have found myself fixated in a number of places at the moment, the great television viewing season is pretty much at a pause as we wait for Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead etc to return to our screens. My consumption of late, when not watching stuff I already have watched, has focused towards stuff from Japan and the current run of Marvel films. Why I ask myself?
We live currently in many ways in a post-genre world, the threads of genre fiction that I have previously discussed here spread and diversified out over the late 19th and early 20th century are in some ways heading back to a big crunch. Genre mashing is a popular thing, a Superhero film is not always a Superhero film any more. In many ways this is a return to the mean rather than a revolutionary concept, Sci-Fi and Fantasy were not separate genres for much of the 20th century. Genre mashes have existed, well for as long as Genre fiction has so far as I can tell.
But there is something all together different about modern Hollywood's handling of Genre, and I'm not sure what it is down to. Is it just bad writing? Neoliberalism attempting to homogenise genre? Is Genre dead?
It can be parsed a little by looking at what works and what hasn't, what projects have succeeded and what haven't. I reviewed Guardians of the Galaxy recently, a movie that has not only seen incredible commercial success but a huge cult following online for characters only nerds like me would have known of two years ago. It's a very good movie, don't get me wrong, but it isn't a great movie.. Why is it the second coming of the Marvel Franchise then? Because Genre. Because it is possibly the most straight up Sci-Fi adventure film to hit the screen in an age. Because we are fatigued by the Op-Art that is the Transformers films, by the soulless Star Wars re-editions and prequels and by a terrible series of sequels, reboots and rehashes. Back in the days of VHS we could at least turn to the direct to video schlock market, but no more. The position that was once gleefully occupied by passionately (often terribly) made indie films is now taken up but groups like The Asylum who churn out dozens of mediocre "mock busters" and films like "Sharknado". Films that do not fail due to a lack of budget or ability from otherwise passionate film makers, but films that are purposefully made to be cheap and bad.
Genre mashes are not a bad thing, they work when written well. (Cowboy Bebop) But I think what we tend to see as Genre mashes today are more switching aesthetics than actual mashes. The aesthetics of Genre have long been mixed up with Genre itself; this is the reason some people don't believe me when I tell them that Kurosawa made westerns. Genre is a story structure and a set of story focuses, it is not "does the hero wield a six-shooter or a katana?". (And if it is where does that leave "The Samurai"?) What we call a Genre mashup now days is usually a genre wearing another genres clothing, very few of them really intertwine the structure of two genres. (Firefly looks like a western and is actually one in a few episodes but is mostly a Space opera in western clothing) Steampunk is an example of this, it isn't much of a genre in it's own right but a set of aesthetics applied to other genres. (Usually Sci-Fi, U-Chronia or Horror), Cyberpunk the same.

So my point is that sometimes it is nice to break the rules, but if your grasp on the rules is incomplete you are likely to just make a mess. Marvel have done a marvellous job making Superhero films that capture the genre in a way that many others do not, they are fast and fun and whilst simple for the most part are able to slide in some nice if not shallow social criticisms. (Ironman and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are the best examples) It is also why we have an explosion in young adult novel adaptations, as they often have very good holds on their genre and style. (Look at what happens when the film companies meddle with them too much, you get "The Golden Compass") Japan does very good pure Genre and mixed Genre shows, some even spawning their own Genres. (Neon Genesis Evangelion skirts between Transhumanist Scifi , Literary fiction and Surrealist Drama) They have been doing this for a very long time and do so with much less attachment to western trends. Most of their genres are born out of western comics, cartoons and literature imported post World War 2, but left in a strange cultural space between east and west something wondrous grows. Europe is the same, until recently trends in Sci-Fi in France or Germany were very different from trends in the US or UK, genre mixing was much more common with the Genres resembling their early 20th century versions up until the 1990s.
The ironic thing of course was, anime like Neon Genesis and Cowboy Bebop were in some part born of creators who believed that their medium was stagnating right at the same time the west was discovering the vibrancy of Japanese animation. The need to create new genres in a realm where genre is a much more rigidly enforced concept than in the West is at the heart of the total genre rewrite that Neon Genesis represented. This reason, much like with Guardian's success is also why we in the west respond to anime in the way we do. Very often it has a genre purity and simplicity that appeals to we who live in a world of four Michael Bay Transformers movies. (What are they? Sci-fi? Action? Adventure? Max Headroom style experiment in nano second advertising?) A friend of mine who is Japanese often bemoans lists of best/worst anime written by westerners because they are generally out of touch with what Japanese fans actually like. The visual novel School Days (スクールデイズ Sukūru Deizu?)often appears on worst lists of anime/manga written by western fans, but was very popular in Japan was the example given to me. (Primarily due to it's grizzly and brutal killings of it's characters)

Where does that leave us? Well besides me rambling.. It leaves us in a place I think that is slowly rediscovering the joy of Genres, the fact we have expectations when we watch stories (Based on Genre constructs in most cases) and sometimes we actually like them to be met.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Marvel keeps it fun: Guardians of the Galaxy


Since it's announcement, Guardians of the Galaxy has been seen as a huge risk for the currently successful Marvel studios. As the cinematic universe expands, and as the actors who made the universe popular become more famous (ie. Less likely to keep doing Marvel films) , the studio has had to add additional comic book franchises to its tent. Due to the joys of movie copyright, many of the obvious big name books are "stuck" with other studios who are unlikely to release these properties to Marvel/Disney. (X-men, Spider man and the Fantastic Four are all currently off limits) So Marvel took the gamble and have started to produce and plan films based on their less well known lines, after all they made Iron Man a household name when this project started.
The second big risk came from the choice of comic, Marvel's Cosmology is complex and often off-putting to even comic readers. The Guardians of the Galaxy are a basically unknown superhero team set in a weird 1970s sci-fi universe full of aliens and ancient gods. How would that go down?
Well a perfectly timed Hype machine and several well put together trailers later, apparently amazingly well. Once again a Marvel film does the ensemble cast well, something that so many other big budget films get wrong by making the film "the main character and his sidekicks". (It's almost always "his" before you point that out) The Avengers was perfect in this regard, creating solid roles for each of the main and even the minor characters.
The story follows Peter Quill, who nicknames himself "Star Lord", a galactic treasure hunter who was abducted from Earth as a child. While on a job to recover a mysterious ancient Orb for a client (with a good amount of double crossing of his partners) he is set upon by Gamora, daughter of the Mad Titan Thanos who is working for a rogue Kree warlord Ronin the Accuser. In the fight he is also attacked by Rocket and his houseplant/bodyguard Groot, bounty hunters looking to snag a high priced bounty put on Quill by his former allies. (As depicted in the previews) They all go to gaol where they meet a mad man named Drax who swears to kill Ronin for slaughtering his family. The aim is to escape and sell the orb and possibly save the Galaxy along the way.
It's hard to see how that synopsis would go down with a general audience who didn't know who Thanos was, what a Kree was or even may have a hard time accepting a character who is essentially a cybernetic Raccoon. But they do, and it works. Groot is now an internet phenom. Seriously, Groot.
Like all the Marvel titles to date Guardians takes itself exactly as seriously as it needs to, no more no less, it is a super hero movie and it is fun. It is also a great Sci-Fi film of the Space Opera Genre, the worlds it creates are solid and believable and created with some very well constructed mes-en-scene rather than confusing exposition. In fact the most expository parts of the film are quite fun, the now famous line up in gaol was a genius way of explaining just who and what these characters are. The action is also very smooth and has an almost totally absence of annoying cuts or cam shake. In fact these fight scenes are almost totally done straight up, some visual effects but no gimmicks and very good fight choreography. (Better than the choppy flat stuff in the Nolan Batman films and less overly choreographed than the Star Wars prequels)
But it is an ensemble character movie, and that is where it really shines. All of the characters are well fleshed out and have their moments in the spotlight. In fact I found Quill to be probably the most weakly developed character, with most of the development of his background tacked on at the end of the film. I feel a little too heavy handedly as well, his journey from rogue to planet saving hero is organic and works without stuff being awkwardly jammed in at the end.
To this date I don't think there has been a bad film in the Marvel franchise yet, a couple of average films but no bad ones. Guardians is defiantly at the good but not great end of the scale, its not at the heights of Iron Man or Captain America: The Winter Soldier , but it is light years (see what I did) ahead of the majority of Sci-Fi action flicks in terms of pacing, story and characters.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Do you know what day it is?


Today one of the most wonderful movies ever made, possibly the best US attempt at an unconscious  Jerry Cornelius film, "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension" turns 30.
On this hallowed occasion check out this awesome bunch of trivia: http://www.everythingaction.com/2014/08/10/buckaroo-banzai-vs-30th-anniversary-trivia/
Or go watch the movie, the whole thing is on Youtube so no excuses. (As well as most streaming services in countries that have those... sniff sniff)
Why? Because Jeff Goldblum in chaps that's why.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday once again, some delays expected

You know I coulda been a contender? :P
With life handing me setbacks to me getting this blog to the next stage I wanted it to get to, I thought I was back on track. I had three review/articles outlined to do and two more for "It rolled" and then...
Well then my primary HDD decided it would be awesome to drop dead on me. So currently operating with duct tape, hope and my old Win-7 box.
I hope to see Guardians of the Galaxy shortly, all the cool kids seem to be raving about it and and I am really interested to see the direction they are planning to go in. (Especially seeing how unexpectedly good Captain America: The Winter Soldier was)
Well speak soon!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I'm back baby!: Space Dandy (2014)

(I know a long absence, Japan and some unstable work stuff had all but halted my ability to do much else. I'd do the former again anytime, the later not so much...)


Egads I love that opening.
If you have been reading these typings for a while you will notice that I have certain predilections for genres, genre mashing and a distaste for the fan obsession with canon in fiction. It probably also would not surprise you that one of my favorite shows of all time (Not fave anime, fave show) is Cowboy Bebop. Currently I have my doubts that a better genre fusion show has been written in the east or the west to this date. The man behind Bebop was Shinichiro Watanabe , a giant of anime also responsible for Macross: Plus and one of the segments of the Animatrix. So Watanabe's newest project, Space Dandy, naturally peaked my interest.

The one thing that you need to know about Space Dandy, because I can hear you all clicking back on your browser reading this, is that is much smarter than its surface appearance and whacky name implies. Space Dandy is a genre satire of anime and genre fiction in general, hiding behind a mask of a female obsessed Elvis clone named Dandy.
The series outline is very simple; Space Dandy is a Dandy in Space. He is an elite alien hunter who tracks down unknown new aliens to catalog. He explores the galaxy in a ship called the Aloha Oi with his crew; a robotic vacuum cleaner named QT and a Betalgeusian named Meow due to his resemblance to a cat. (Something that annoys Meow no end, despite all the feline habits he constantly exhibits)
Now Dandy is a simple creature, he hopes to capture an ultra rare alien and hand it into the alien registration center for money to visit his favorite restaurant; a chain known as "Boobies". (A thinly veiled Hooters, complete with a Koala instead of an Owl, could be a language pun) Each episode usually follows this quest for money so that one day Dandy can visit all of the Boobies outlets in the universe. All the way he is pursued by the mysterious Dr Gel and the forces of the Gogol Empire for reasons that are utterly unknown.
How does this make for a show? The premise is simply an excuse to propel the clueless Dandy and his crew into genre bending adventures with no heed to inter-episode continuity or ongoing plot. The series in unapologeticaly episodic and has a visual style that hearkens back to pulp sci fi of the 1950s, all rocket ships and ray guns. In this way it pokes fun at the usual pattern of Anime, the trend towards shows being mysteries that the cover uncover whilst building towards a world shattering conclusion. Dandy has none of that, he is pursued by mysterious forces he is not aware of, and remains unaware of because they always fail due to dumb fortune. There is no grand plan, characters die only to reset back into place at the start of the next episode, the same waitress (Honey) seems to work at every Boobies in the Universe in a nod to Nurse Joy from Pokemon. (or is he visiting the same outlet constantly, that is the question) 
It is in fact very refreshing that each episode you watch is a self contained whole, the first episode is probably the only one the you could want to watch in order as it introduces the characters but really there isn't much additional information there other than why and how Meow is on board. In many ways the series seems like a deliberate stick in the eye of all the anime tropes coming out of Hideaki Anno's "Neon Genesis Evangelion"; the original puzzlebox anime. (I am going to write an article about "Captain Earth" soon, a show that manifests all the best and worst of the post Anno Anime) 
Helping along the gleeful reset button based comedy is a different animation director every episode, so outside the core cast the animation style of each episode varies dramatically. From straight forward conventional (and very high quality) anime style in episodes like ""A Merry Companion Is a Wagon in Space, Baby" to wildly surrealistic episodes like ""Plants Are Living Things, Too, Baby". (Yes all the episode titles end in Baby, just like all the Bebop episode titles were music references) 
The comedy is combination of schoolboy like J-humor tinged with many satirical references to other show or genre fiction. Surprisingly for an show whose main character is obsessed with women it has little "Fan Service" outside probably the first two episode, which even then is tame compared to most anime. In fact Dandy is a perennial letch like so many anime leads, but he never seems to actually want to do anything beyond ogle boobs and asses. He never even seems to consider that there is more that can be done than look at women.. (A social comment maybe?) 
The space stuff in the show is great, often bizarrely designed and in many cases function-less other than being a normal appliance "In Space". There are dozens of weird and bizarre alien designs every episode. But the treatment of technology is ultimately very contemporary, with Meow using space versions of Twitter and Instagram constantly and all of the high tech being about as reliable as modern computers. Space Dandy is very aware of it being a cipher for our modern times rather than a futurist prediction. 

Should you watch Space Dandy? Yes, absolutely. Some episodes fall a little flat but the majority are funny and clever chaos. It is rare to see a show in this day and age that actually is as freeform and whimsical as Dandy, even animated shows in the west seem to need a more serious edge to them to succeed. (Adventure Time or Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy the only in production western show I can think of that come close)
So if you want perhaps the funkiest show about at the moment, give it a try. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

What I'm watching now: Jodorowsky's Dune (2013)

(A short absence, was in Japan again! As well as various real life dramas. Continuing without further ado...)


Sometimes there are works of art that are important not for their existence but their lack of existence; the unrealized, the destroyed and the unfinished. Art is ultimately something that struggles with the ephemeral nature of all things, so we are captivated more by that even more ephemeral art object; the great unfinished work.
Jodorowsky's adaptation of Dune is perhaps the most influential unfinished work of the later twentieth century cinema. It is a great unknown and has a legend that has echoed and overshadowed all subsequent attempts to adapt Herbert's Novel. In many ways it was the result of a near perfect storm that perhaps did not last long enough for the film to see completion. Jodo's great work will never be realized, an even if it was in some alternate reality and transported to our realm in a form we could watch, I am unsure any work could live up to the legend of Jodorosky's Dune.

The film lives in possibly the only way it can, in the form of a documentary produced in 2013 by film maker Frank Pavich that seeks to document the story of perhaps the greatest film never made. The film is ultimately a very nostalgic look at the pre production of the film, a process that took three years , cost $2million of the film's projected $9.5million dollar budget and never shot a foot of film. In some ways it is a little too nostalgic, not mentioning a number of key issues the project faced, but from the wonderful interviews with Jodorowsky it seems almost impossible to speak to the man and not be captured by his wide eyed, almost cult leader like, charisma and enthusiasm.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a Chilean film maker who came to great prevalence in the early 1970s for his two surrealist/existentialist films "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain". Jodo was the toast of avant-garde film-making in France and was offered financing for any project he desired, and as the clip above illustrates he wanted to do "Dune". At this stage Film was making its uneasy progression through the 1970s, scarred by Vietnam and the end of the Summer of Love. This was a time where Genre filmaking stood in the shadow of Kubrick's 2001 and had not yet discovered "Star Wars". Drug culture was settling into the mainstream which had yet to grow tired of the psychedelic hope that the 1960s had created. Jodo promised not just an Art film, not just a Science Fiction film, but like Kubrick a film that would change Cinema forever.

"Jodorowsky's Dune" is possibly the closest one will ever be able to come, practically, to seeing the film itself. Jodo and Jean Giraud (The comic artist known better as Moebius) spent the start of pre production creating a shot by shot storyboard and script that occupies a great tome that Jodorowsky gleefully displays during the documentary film. The documentary recreates several scenes from those story boards using Moebius's sketches in animated form with Jodo narrating, these sequences alone make the documentary worth the ticket price. The rest is gold as well, tales of courting Orson Wells and Salvidor Dali for the project, of flying Dan Obannon to Paris from the US and bringing the (sadly now late) Swiss artist HR Geiger to world prominence. We are also given insight into Jodorowsky's vision for film making though both him and the eyes of his Son (who featured in El Topo alongside his father and would have featured as Paul in Dune).

Now the 9.5million dollar (or $40million if you are Dino De Laurentiis) question that nerds on the internet and in fanzines of old would as is simple; would this have been the definitive version of the unfilmable novel we love so? The short answer as illustrated by this documentary would be; no it would not have been. If the question was "would this have been an amazing film based on the novel Dune?" then the answer would be it may have been. Like Kubrick's "The Shining", Jodo's "Dune" was very aware of its status as an adaptation. Jodorowsky even discusses this himself using a very inelegant metaphor, in short to love the novel and create the best film he could he would have to ravish it, to pillage and burn it so that his vision would rise like a phoenix. If you are a fan of the novels who disliked Lynch for having Paul make it rain at the end, well Jodo's ending left that in the dust. In fact so much of his proposed film wildly deviates from the original work, character names, place names, the Spice and some motivations alone remain. (Like Paul's conception being via a drop of blood because Leto was castrated, or the Emperor being so afraid of death that he has many robotic duplicates, or the total removal of the poison tooth scene, the ending and more...)

The future influence of Dune cannot be understated and the documentary does a great jobs of showing the other films that Jodo's failed film created via it's death. (Alien, Star Wars, Promethius a examples used that use ideas or designs from Jodo's film. In fact this documentary makes me more convinced that Avatar is a Dune Adaptation by stealth.) This documentary is a timeless recording of that most ephemeral artistic concept, the incomplete masterpiece, and one all fans of Genre film-making need to see.

Monday, April 28, 2014

It's Sunday somewhere right?

Hi everybody!
So a short one today because.. well life.
But for those of you with the inclination to like Tabletop RPGs do I have a story for you!
A friend of mine is running a Kickstarter for an Australian written and produced Role Playing Game and the initial art for the book looks amazeballs.
I mean seriously;


So if you want to support an Australian RPG which looks the business drop on over to:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1121209158/altais-age-of-ruin-a-dystopian-fantasy-rpg

Still to come: That Dune Documentary, some boardgame reviews (at last!) and my 13.79192934c on the doom that came to the Star Wars Expanded universe.
Stay tuned!