Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 huh?

Well that was 2013.
I don't think I'm yet used to putting 20xx in front of the year let alone 201x...
I'd like to thank everyone who looks in on this corner of the tubes and puts up with my mostly coherent ranting. This blog as seen a great up tick in traffic over the past twelve months; something that has buoyed me to write and post more often and focus this blog into the lean mean pop culture yakking machine it is today.
What is happening next year? Who can say, a little bit of this, some of that and maybe something new as well?
To leave you for this year is something I have spent an age on this year but yet to write about (apart from that one time in a round about way). Travel to Japan again and a connected  re-sparked interest in the anime classics I loved in my youth led me to to a weird listening to J-pop place. So here is a bit, the lovely Sheryl Nome (Mayn the actual artist) with the awesome closing title sequence from Macross Frontier. The song "Northern Cross"
Happy new year!

Friday, December 27, 2013

What I'm Watching now: Babylon 5 (Season 1; Signs and Portents)

We are today in what many call a renaissance of television; a time when the writing and storytelling ability of television writers (Particularly on US Cable TV) rivals or exceeds that of Hollywood. The genesis of this boom can be found in the early 1990s, better technology not only gave us better quality video but also made it easier for transfers to be made from higher quality film. The real break out for improving the quality of Television production was the eponymous 1990 series "Twin Peaks"; a huge hit helped move Television out of the studio and opened the door at Networks for more experimental programing.

Star Trek: The Next Generation had been on television for six years and had proven very popular, by 1993 many networks were trying sci-fi. The X-files, Sea Quest DSV, Highlander, Earth 2 and Space Above and beyond all appeared on our screens in 1993-94. The majority duplicated the pattern of Star Trek, self contained episodic sci fi with some elements of a greater plot arc seeded through the series. Even the X-Files was mostly self contained adventures in it's early years, but as the trend for larger and more sophisticated stories started to become a success with audiences almost all genre television started to incorporate those ideas into their storytelling. (Up to the current season cliff hanger fueled Sci-Fi Television, or the Story arc meme approach used in New Doctor Who and series like Warehouse 13 that kept the episodic structure)
The Pioneer of the season long arc concept is undoubtedly Babylon 5, launched in 1993 with a pilot telemovie and picked up as a series by Warner Brothers in 1994. Babylon 5 was a space opera in the purest sense of the word and the brainchild of writer J Micheal Straczynki (JMS) ; conceived as "fundamentally, a five-year story, a novel for television,".
Now twenty years on, I am re-watching the whole series and rediscovering just how intricately written and plotted the series was. The series is often remembered for it's cutting edge CGI effects, it's distinctive sound track scored by Tangerine Dream's Christopher Franke, and for the fact that it came out at the same time as another space station based show "Star Trek Deep Space Nine". But really I think the elements that really have stood the test of time is its example of good story arc writing despite the best efforts of a Television network to make it all fall down on its face.

The series starts with the 1993 Pilot movie "The Gathering", like most pilots the cast and concepts have yet to be fully bolted down. As a movie it is a little weak, lots of explanatory dialogue and a slow paced story focusing on an Assassination attempt of a new Alien Ambassador. What it does do is give us an overview of it's universe and characters. The year is 2257 and humanity has gone to the stars and encountered a multitude of alien races and cultures. After almost facing defeat against the highly advanced Minbari ten years earlier, the Earth Alliance elects to build a neutral diplomatic outpost to prevent further wars. These stations, the Babylon stations, are one by one destroyed by accident, terrorism or mysterious forces. (In the case of Babylon 4) Babylon 5 was the first of this series of stations to successfully come online and serve as a place of trade and diplomacy.
The story focuses on the station commander, Jeffery Sinclair a veteran of the Earth Minbari war as he represents the interests of earth and peace while dealing with the machinations of various alien governments. We are introduced to four primary governments; the Minbari a highly advanced spiritual people, the Centari a race of decadent Aristocrats whose best days are behind them, the Narn an aggressive warrior race once slaves of the Centari and the mysterious Vorlons who are never seen outside their encounter suits. The Pilot gives us a very bare bones view of the universe JMS had in store for us, gives us a few mysteries and shows off the ground breaking (for 1993) special effects.

By the time of the series premier proper in 1994 many thing had changed from the pilot. Several of the main cast were swapped out, a new Doctor, Telepath and XO were introduced, the Minbari were redesigned a little with the androgynous Ambassador Delen more distinctly female now. As soon as you load up the first episode of the series "Midnight on the firing line", you immediately see the form that JMS's story is intended to work in. "Midnight..." covers much of the background covered in the Pilot and along with the second episode "Soul Hunter" very adeptly set up all the story beats for the season ahead. The main cast quickly settle into their roles and their individual story arcs are carefully mapped out and advanced as the season progresses. Very few scenes or dialogue lines are flippant or left to chance in this season, watching it unfold again you can see that even in non arc episodes the characters foreshadow their development with a great degree of skill on the part of the writers and actors. (Despite some truly terrible performances from the guest cast, hello Jinx) The Narn Ambassador G'kar is a great example, a basically flat out villain in the pilot organically twists both ways as the series progresses. In one episode he is plotting attacks on Centari colonies, another he is rescuing Sinclair's girlfriend and all for reasons that make sense for the character.

Babylon 5 also gave us the ideas of putting chapter titles on seasons, something that few series have really done since. The title for the first season was "Signs and Portents" and that is a theme that runs under every episode and plot development. What we see here are the beginnings of plot arcs, the green shoots that will blossom later into more developed stories. Religion is a big theme and continues to be so as the series progresses, not a particular religion but religion and faith itself. World building is also a great strength of the series, the world presented is very much our own projected forward 200years with all of the political and cultural issues that the 1990s had. That makes the world quite relate able, we are not seeing the utopic future of Star Trek but a world where people and governments are as flawed, greedy and terrible as in our own.

The season pushes forward to a cliff hanger, the Earth Alliance president is assassinated, Ambassador Delenn undergoes some sort of process that puts her into a chrysalis,  mysterious aliens attack under orders from a man known only as Morden and the station chief of security is shot in the back by his second in command. What seems to be a fairly stable universe is turned on it's axis in the space of a single day setting us up for the drama to come next season. This is all expertly done, and honestly the final episode of the season "Chrysalis" is the one that turned me around on the series initially after disliking the pilot. None of these cliffhanger events are strange or out of the blue, each is carefully setup and foreshadowed in a very tightly written manner. From Delenn building the device to transform her into whatever she will become slowly throughout the whole second half of the season, to the constant reminders to Security chief Garabaldi to "watch his back". (Or in one case "You gotta learn to watch you back Micheal" in the episode TKO)Babylon 5 season one is an almost perfect model as to how to write story arc based genre fiction, one that many series attempted to imitate in the years that followed. It's a slow boil, but it warms you up just right for what is to come...
(To be continued as soon as I finish Season 2 :P)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday: War is Over!

Posting late tonight, the holiday season tends to get one busy. So a short holiday shout out to all you folks who read my often frenzied and incoherent musings. As of this writing I have one day of work to go before the end of year break, then a meal to cook for Christmas day. (Something I actually enjoy doing a lot, so long as it is a solo operation. I get control freaky)
Something many of you may not know about me; my birthday is the day after John Lennon died. Or adjusting for timezone very much the same day. I still remember where I was when I heard the news, I have no idea if I was aware enough of who he was seeing as I was just about to turn 4 years old at the time. But I do recall my mother talking about it in the kitchen with the radio reports playing in the background. Human memory is ultimately highly fallible; but standing next to the family's old AM radio/turntable and listening to the upset in my mother's voice is a very sharp and clear one for me.
So for the season, here is a Lennon video and one who's sentiments I hope one day will come to pass.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Because it contains my current Celeb crush; Thor: The Dark World

People who know me can try to guess as to whom I'm talking about in the headline, or just take wild stabs in the dark. Thor: The Dark world is the latest movie in the Marvel films Juggernaut (Wait Fox says we can't say that) um Thing (Can't say that either) um...Hulk(?) staring Chris Hemsworth as the blonde Asgardian hero. Be warned some spoilers below the fold....

2011's Thor was in my humble opinion a nice popcorn film, nothing complicated but also nothing grievously offensive to people who are familiar with the comic book hero. It was perhaps the weakest of the new Marvel films next to all bar 2008's "The Incredible Hulk", but still a better film than many of the non Marvel superhero flicks. Thor did one thing very well, it established Hemsworth as a likable and charismatic lead which he has carried through "The Avengers" and now "Thor: The Dark World". It also introduced us to Tom Hiddleston's Loki, but that character didn't really take off until "The Avengers" imho, when Hiddleston seemed to really start having fun with the part.
Thor: The Darkworld is an odd film in that it has exactly the opposite problem to pretty much every FX blockbuster of the now. The standard pattern for the majority of the big Genre films in recent years has been a great first two acts followed by a mediocre or just plain bad third. Hollywood is so obsessed with twists, subverting expectations and sequels that so many films rocket off to a great start and have no idea what to do with themselves after throwing CG at your head for 60 minutes.
Thor: The Darkworld has the opposite issue, a weirdly plotted and put together first act that gets much much better after Natalie Portman gets injected with space goo. The primary issue is that the first act does a very bad job explaining what the film is about, and tries to seed macguffins and character points in an awkward manner that doesn't really work as a story, more as a series of connected events. This I think has led to many reviewers to criticize the plot as being a bit daft and hard to decipher despite it actually being relativity straight forward. It centers around an old foe of Asgard; Malekith lord of the Dark elves who fought Odin's father in an attempt to return the universe to the primal darkness that existed before creation. He utilized a weapon; the Aether, that was capable of destroying worlds but was stopped and the Aether was trapped (because as a force of pure destruction it could not be destroyed). Malekith was thought dead but really escaped with a small cabal of his followers awaiting a time where the Nine realms converge to release the Aether so he could try again. Now he is back and the Aether (space goo) has possessed Jane Foster and our hero has to fight against the returned Malekith, deal with his imprisoned brother Loki and the objections of his own father to save Asgard and the whole universe.
Once the plot establishment is out of the way the film brings out some nice action scenes and decent character development for our mains despite quite a large cast of secondary characters and a number of location shifts. The final action sequence in particular is great as it almost seems like a parody of FX fueled action sequences, with the convergence causing reality to bend and character teleporting between locations and worlds as they fight. (It almost plays up how nonsensical so many FX sequences have become now days as well as the fundamental unreality of film time)
The Dark elves are a reasonable villain, Malekith is played well by Christopher Eccelston but the script makes him a very straight line antagonist outshone like the rest of the film by Hiddleson as Loki. They are very well realized visually, I love the creepy doll masks and the overall knife blade look of all their tech. Sadly I feel they are made to appear potent by making the Asgardians appear weak, especially Odin who ends up being wrong about absolutely everything in this film; which is weird seeing the whole first film was essentially an exercise by Odin in teaching Thor wisdom and humility. (Although this plan seemed to make a villain of Loki and destroyed the Bifrost and part of a New Mexico town) The other character disappointment is Siff who seems to be leading towards a love triangle plot with Thor and Jane but is then basically not used after the escape from Asgard. I don't mind the Brave companions not being used in this film, or being used minimally, but something was started in the first act (the scene at the feast in particular) which basically has zero payoff later on. It goes back to the first act issue I mentioned above, it's almost like a different set of writers wrote the first act. Basically its a bit of sloppy writing, the only named female Asgardian who isn't his mother HAS to be in love with Thor, which is fine except is seems to have no affect on the plot other than placing a tiny bit of doubt on her helping Thor escape. Which she does anyway, so what's the point? Use those scenes to explain the plot more gooderer. The tension with his father more than enough demonstrates Thor being trapped between two worlds without having to make the only female hero with actual superpowers in the current Marvel film universe (well bar the brief Pepper Potts thing in Ironman 3) faun all over him and basically nullify herself as a character useful for plot by then NOT DOING ANYTHING WITH HER. (Sorry long rambling sentence but it bugged me.)
But overall it is like the first Thor film a good solid Comic book film, true (bar Odin) to the characters and feel of the other Marvel films. Probably a little better than the first as the plot and situations are just a little more epic, fitting with the power level of the character, and the universe the first film only touched on is fleshed out and seems more substantial in this film.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Sunday Sunday

Ok have a few things on the boil atm as well as the whole holiday fuss-o-rama so plans are slower that I would like. Coming up (very soon I hope) will be a couple of reviews; superhero films a real weakness of mine currently, another what I'm watching at the moment series AND some stuff for the sadly neglected boardgaming blog. (an updated post and a new review)
Again any ideas on how I can do this full time and actually have everything I want to write done promptly with time for proper editing please let me know :P

This weeks bit of intertube gold looks a little dated but is a treat for anyone who read the amazing manga "Battle Angel Alita" (銃夢 or Gunnm in Japanese) during the 1990s. It's a dated sequence by today's standards but something I didn't even know existed before last week which caused me to re-read the original series. What makes this more relevant is Jame Cameron has mentioned that his live action/US version of the series is intended to start production after he finished the "anticipated" sequels to Avatar. With luck this will end up as a non event much like Toby Maguires attempts to do a live action "Robotech", with an insane amount of luck it might be made with some of the wondrous character design and strange existential trans-humanism that made the manga so good. (Not to mention the humor)
The following sequence was created as an extra for the DVD release of the Gunnm animated OVA; not a great adaptation of the material to be honest but the creator Yukito Kishiro has often been sighted as having little interest in adapting the series to an animated format.
So if you ever wanted to see the motorball chapter done animated/live action here is the best you'll see until Jimi Cameron ruins it...

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sunday: Jerusalem Boogie

I do think this series of Sunday posts will become a litany of how awesome a thing public video sharing sites are. Today is another example of something that may not have seen the light of day if it wasn't for the Youtubes; a live rendition of Genesis's prog rock epic "Suppers Ready". Including Peter Gabriel's poetry stylings at the beginning and loads of awesomely prog costume changes. In some ways watching this you can feel some of the frustration that crept into the band with Gabriel's increasing theatrics. Say what you will about Genesis but anything with Steven Hackett on guitar is worth a listen, imho one of the great unsung guitarists of the 1970s. (Rutherford also no slouch) 
I was exposed to prog rock from a young age and thanks to my father's record collection have a somewhat strong appreciation to the side-long track Prog epic, or Kraut-rock epic. I also don't get in the habit of making playlists on my computer much (I don't know why), so long tracks are great when I am writing or studying. (As today's Progfest is playing backing track to my attempts to learn Japanese lol)
So enjoy... or not...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

So bad, yet so good: Cockneys vs Zombies

The past half decade has seen a number of booms in genre film making. First and most obviously would be the boom in Zombie films that started last decade and seemed to crescendo with AMC's "The Walking Dead"; but this still carries on in the realms of writing, gaming and comic to the time of writing. (Vampires tried to shift the shufflers but it looks like that fad has faded with Twilight) The other boom that is now reaching it's peak is in films "So bad they are good", a trend that was really kicked off by Snakes on a Plane and managed to catapult borderline scam artists The Asylum to international notoriety with their "hits" such as Sharknado. I have to admit to a degree of cynicism with this new trend of manufactured schlock, they are very one note jokes for the most part.
2012's British entry both booms (?) is the quite enjoyable "Cockneys vs Zombies"; and as a film I don't know how much of its schlock is manufactured or borne from a deliberate desire to document the struggles of the East end against the Zombie Apocalypse. It's even harder to tell as it comes from a director (Matthias Horne) who has a very short resume of films to judge from. Is this a cynical cash grab for the Zombie/schlocksploitation market? Or is this a "serious" film with a quirky idea behind it?
Cockneys vs Zombies follows the misadventures of a pair of brothers, Terry (Rasmus Hardiker) and Andy(Harry Treadaway) , who decide to rob a bank in order to save their grandfather's (Alan Ford) retirement home. They team up with a pair of hopeless criminals (one just incompetent, the other psychotic) and their way too talented Cousin Katy. (Michelle Ryan. No small celeb crush on her at all here... I even tried to like the Bionic Woman reboot) While the group proceeds to mess up a bank robbery, two workmen accidentally unleash the Romero apocalypse on East London and the dead rise to consume the flesh of the living. So the group is tasked with fighting their way across London to help save their grandfather and other occupants of the retirement home from the growing undead hoard.
The Undead here are pretty much your stock standard Romero type, slow moving, killed by destroying the brain and infectious. The Cockneys are reflections of a Guy Richie film (literally in the case of Alan Ford) and Eastenders (again literally with Michelle Ryan) mashed together and the film does do the genre smash well. The Bankrobbery is a good reason why people in London would have the firepower needed to do traditional Zombie blasting, and the mcguffin of the characters having to deal with an illegal arms trader to get them is quite logically followed through. Despite the films zany meta-premise it generally plays it straight, a few of the characters and situations are amusing but that simply pushes it into dark comedy as opposed to ridiculousness. This intent to actually do a "Lock Stock meets Dawn of the dead" mash up rather than a Shark filled train wreck is what makes this film endearing.
The characters are simple and generally very satisfying, of course they are often stereotypes but, especially with the inhabitants of the retirement home, they are portrayed with a wonderful amount of charm. (and really you can't be surprised that a film with this title would truck in stereotypes?) Ultimately the simple characters , portrayed well, in a slightly zany but serious situation hangs together and entertains remarkably well. The story beats are well paced, the action is generally good and its entertaining above all. (Although I am unsure Alan Ford is able to be not entertaining) It's no "Shaun of the Dead" by any stretch, it's not as clever or witty. But it isn't a one note joke either, it hangs together as a heist movie in the first half and a decent Zombie flick in the second and gives us some light laughs that derive from the characters and the situations they are put in.
The only criticism that can really be leveled is the film does lack good horror elements; something that some modern Zombie media tends towards. The Zombies are much more an environmental issue than any sort of horror element, in fact these have to be some of the weakest and slowest Zombies to date. (Just look at the Walker vs Walking frame in the preview clip above)
But overall, not high art and not genre changing but you indeed get exactly what it says on the box and presented in an entertaining manner at that. It's a great film to watch with friends, beer and snacks.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lazy Sunday post

In the interest of posting more often (something I'm very bad at to be honest) I thought I'd try to post every Sunday with stuff I am reading and watching. Some people do this sort of posting very well (Ping Kate, seriously go read her blog it's awesome) and I'm giving it a go to appear to be less piecemeal about my posting. (It's like a muscle yeah? Keep exercising and it gets easier?) 

So first a wonderfully weedy post about the racial characteristics of Anime characters, exactly the sort of pop-culture/Genre fiction article I like to read. The cultural flow between the west and Japan has always fascinated me, almost as much as as how fans address the results on both sides of the cultural divide...

Second, a wonderfully restored video of a classic track and one that did mark a bit of a turning point in Britain post "Sergent Peppers". Youtube is a wondrous thing and it amazing the skill with which people restore and repost this footage (Often to as high or higher standard than commercial remasters) before it get's DMCAed into oblivion...