Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Sharknado: The Fourth Awakens Review

The Sharknado series has a somewhat convoluted, if not especially complex, continuing storyline. Fortunately this film does not require you to know that. Rather, it prefers to trade off celebrity cameos, classic film references and pop culture jokes for scenes that require more than guns, sharks, wind and chainsaws.

The story is nonsensical, being a simple and efficient way to string together scenes of action and disaster. The acting is mixed, especially in the case of The Hoff who swings between obviously-the-best-actor-in-the-room to wooden-plank-phoning-it-in-from-the-bathroom, occasionally in the same scene. None of this is important. The film is an excuse to create as many CGI shark action set-pieces as possible, with a few nods to creating stakes for character and audience and pacing so that we are not exhausted by chainsaw-shark interactions before the first ad-break.

If the film has anything to say apart from warning us of the danger of flying sharks, it may have a couple of evergreen messages. Firstly that billionaire scientists and technology can't save us from unexpected threats. Secondly, in their use of the media; as each tornado encounters something new they give it an exciting name boulder-nado, oil-nado, lightning-nado. As these storms travel across the US wrecking cities, towns and national monuments, they seem to cover it with all the urgency of regular news. Is this commentary, or simply a way to deliver the names for all the cool CGI tornadoes to the audience? I don't know.

So what is there to say? I enjoyed it. It did not keep my interest very well. There were a couple of good jokes. 7/10 Game of the Year.

Watch This: If you like stupid action shark stuff.
Don't Watch This: If compelling character dynamics or clever plotting or anything that doesn't involve exploding sharks and D-list celebrities being squashed are important to you.
Learn More About Sharks: I was going to put a link to a BBC documentary series, but it broadcast last year and seems to be unavailable so you'll have to do your own research.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Deccenial

This is the 10th anniversary of this blog. It may well be the longest-lived commitment I've ever made, which since it's been dormant/sporadic since 2013 is kind of sad. Maybe it's kind of sad anyway.

I could go back and look at some of the stuff here, and how it's changed, and how I've changed, but I won't. Partly due to laziness, and mostly because I'm still sticking to my original mission statement. Here's the bit I quote every time this blog has some sort of milestone, as true today as in 2006:

Hopefully, this blog will never have anything of interest in it, and, even if I make a mistake and it does, only three people will ever read it.
Pretty much. See you in ten years.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Meet-Fight-Team Up

Thinking about Superhero team ups and movies for no particular reason, here are my over long thoughts on Avengers Assemble. Unfortunately there's some background to get through first.

Meet/Fight/Team-Up

One of the classic superhero team up plots goes like this: One hero tracks a villain to the city of another hero. Learning that a terrifying masked apparition is beating people up, the second hero confronts them. They fight, then work out their differences and get together to defeat the villain. In shorthand it's known as Meet, Fight, Team-Up, for obvious reasons.

(The most common conflict is territorial with another hero coming to, say, Gotham City which Batman considers entirely his, but other disagreements are possible such as thinking Spider-man is a menace or not wanting anything to do with those dang mutant X-Men.)

This works because we get the fun of seeing the two heroes facing off (that's why we're here) coming to a grudging respect/friendship, and the even-more-fun of seeing them use their separate strategies and abilities to take down the villain.

Three Act Structure

The three act structure for stories works like this: In the first act we are introduced to our characters and situation. A change or problem occurs in the second act, forcing our characters to respond. In the third act they work out what they need to do and resolve things to the satisfaction of, if no one else, the audience. In brief, Introduction, Complication, Resolution.

As well as progressing the plot, most stories will also seek to change (or reveal) the characters as well. For example in Act One of Die Hard, John Mclane arrives in Los Angeles seeking to reconcile with his wife. In Act Two the building they are in is taken over by terrorists and Mclane must use his cop skills to survive. By Act Three he has transformed into a ruthless killing machine who does not spare anyone, even himself (or his feet) in order to defeat the bad guys.

There's a plot twist in there too.

Pre-Credits Action Sequence

Action films often open with an action sequence. (Notably Die Hard doesn't). It serves as part of the introduction; telling us that this film contains excitement and violence; we may be about to spend a bit of time explaining plot and presenting character, but don't worry, there will be some fighting and chasing to come. It's also like those silver age comic covers where something outrageous and wacky is there. Hey kids, we're going to spend some time (about four panels usually) setting the scene, but don't get bored. Lois Lane is totally going to punch a gorilla!

That's the end of the boring theory stuff.

Disclaimer

I have no particular knowledge of how Avengers Assemble was made, so this has all been put together from watching the film and reading a few interviews. Still, here's some of the things the film does that I think must have been part of the plan from the start:

- Cram as many Character vs Character fights and confrontations in as possible.
- Give each of the main characters* an arc (either a change or a reveal), even (especially) the villain
- Give EVERY character a moment to shine (this is a particular Joss Whedon flourish)
- Mix this up a bit - have character beats in action sequences and reveal important plot points in talky character scenes

That last might be making a virtue of necessity as we've got a whole bunch of characters to (re-)introduce, give action and character scenes to and on top of that put a plot together.

* The main characters: The six Avengers, Nick Fury, and Loki (and arguably Coulson)


The Fights and Confrontations:

Pre-credit sequence

Loki vs Fury (more of a confrontation)
Maria Hill vs Hawkeye and Loki (and a bunch of mind-controlled SHIELD agents)

Act One

Black Widow vs Russian Arms and Antiquities Dealers
(Black Widow vs Bruce Banner) (Confrontation)
Captain America Vs Loki in Stuttgart ending with...
Iron Man vs Loki
Iron Man vs Thor; and
Thor vs Captain America (this scene with the three of them is the purest Meet-Fight-Team-up of the film)

Act Two (I like to consider Act 2 to take place entirely on the Heli-Carrier for unity of place. If you're not into that and prefer you can have the complication begin in Stuttgart. This means that we don't introduce the Thor/Loki relationship until Act 2 though that doesn't really matter)

(Black Widow vs Loki) Confrontation
Hawkeye vs the Heli-Carrier and SHIELD
Black Widow vs Hulk
Thor vs Hulk
Coulson vs Loki
Thor vs Loki
Black Widow vs Hawkeye
Hulk vs a fighter jet

Act Three

Iron Man vs Loki
Thor vs Loki
Fighter Jet vs Loki
Giant Complex Battle including
Hulk vs Loki

And Now The Character Beats

The most obvious one is Tony Stark. He is all about himself. He wants to skive off from working with SHIELD and make time with his girlfriend. When he turns up in Stuttgart he upstages everyone, introducing his own soundtrack. Loki's influence turns both his best and worst traits against the rest of the team, making him the catalyst for everyone's doubts and fears.

Then he has the conversation with Steve Rogers after Coulson's death. Rogers shows some sympathy, realising that this is the first time Stark has lost someone. And in that moment Stark realises that Rogers has lost everyone and is still carrying on.

This finally plays out when Rogers' earlier speeches about sacrifice pay off and Iron Man carries the nuke through the portal.

Steve Rogers is adrift. Loki spots this when he refers to him as "The Man Out Of Time". (Loki is good at weaknesses). When he turns up in Stuttgart he begins by mentioning the war, never really a good introduction in Germany. When he spars verbally with Stark he continually comes off second best.

He finds his role. First in the scenes where he helps Stark fix the engine, then when he talks him down, gives him focus, and probably more important than it looks, the moment when Clint offers to fly the plane, Natasha vouches for him and he accepts it without question. So he's all there when they get on board the jet and he tells the guard "Son. Just don't."

Natasha has just one moment and it goes by quickly. What she says to Loki when she interrogates him is not made up of whole cloth. She really does owe Clint. She gets the call during the attack on the heli-carrier, and she hesitates for just one half moment, and then she goes out to fight and possibly kill him. If she has to. And in the moment she stops being an assassin and becomes a superhero by taking the risk of knocking him out rather than trying to kill him.

Clint Barton's arc is almost all external. He's mind-controlled by Loki and becomes even more ruthless. Then he's un-mind-controlled and seeks revenge.

Banner doesn't want to be the Hulk. (One classic template for a Hulk story is that of a were-wolf story). He's right to fear it as the Hulk goes bonkers under Loki's influence. But (inevitably) he picks himself up and goes back to confront Loki again. And it turns out he's always angry, so that's a thing.

Thor's is quite straightforward. He confronts Loki on Somewhere-in-the-Atlantic Island, but their conversation is interrupted. He confronts him again when Loki escapes his cell. And he does it a third time on Stark Tower. Each time he says, give it up. Give it up and come home. And each time Loki says no.

Loki, of course, has the mirror image of Thor's arc. He's offered a way out three times. And every time he rejects it. But there's more; every action of Loki's either has two objectives (in Stuttgart he both gets the iridium and fights the Avengers) or has two possible outcomes that benefit him (if he beats Fury's response team in Stuttgart then game over, no one on Earth can beat him; if he's taken prisoner he gets into the SHIELD base and tears the team apart from within). In fact his whole plan works that way, right up to the end. Either he ends up king of Earth or he's captured by Thor and taken back to Asgard, both of which are superior to being left to Thanos. (In fact even being dead or in a super-secret SHIELD torture-laboratory are probably better results than failing Thanos).

So What? Or My Conclusions.

There are a LOT of intra-team fights jammed in this film. Yet they work and don't feel forced because the entire film is about the team trying to form, despite 1. their different approaches and problems; 2. Nick Fury's morally compromised position while putting them together; and 3. Loki's mystical and other efforts to lever them apart. Thor and Iron Man fight because Thor acts like the protagonist and grabs Loki, and Iron Man is pissed off that his prisoner has been stolen. Thor and Hulk; Widow and Hawkeye fight because one member is mind controlled in one way or another.

Meanwhile everyone gets their character arc (and a lot of them get to put a cap on it during that enormously long final sequence). But with so many characters they mostly don't have a three stage arc, but a two stage one. It's still satisfying and everyone gets one because Joss Whedon's team have figured out where they can cut corners on this without losing impact.

So why have I spent 1500 words on this? Because this is my benchmark for Superhero team up films. This works in ways that Fantastic Four(s) didn't, and is a step forward from the X-Men films. It's better than Age of Ultron and I intend to go into why I think so at some point.

So anyway. Meet, Fight, Team-up. Introduction, Complication, Resolution. Avengers Assemble!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Anthropomorphising Spring

1. Last October I sent in my entry for the National Poetry Competition. Although they have not yet announced the winners I have been contacted to tell me that I have not been successful. Apparently there were nearly 13,000 entries so even someone as egotistical as I must admit that there were probably a couple of hundred worth comparing to mine.

2. Since it is out of the competition I can now publish it elsewhere without it being eliminated. This seems to be an appropriate day:

Persephone’s Dance

The Greeks used to call her Persephone
Personification of the season
She’s had six months in hell (there are reasons)
Now celebrating her liberty

Remembering on this cross quarter day
Promises of summer and winter that’s passed
Is it festival or is it a fast
Somebody else will be leading the way

Gathered in a field we start to sing
Air and land no longer silent and still
Maybe she won’t and maybe she will
Join us to dance on the first day of spring 

3. Since I wrote the poem last spring (for May Day in fact), sent it in October, and deliberately ignored it since then, I had actually forgotten what I entered. I had thought that I hadn't actually written any poetry since then, but it turns out that's not right. I wrote the lyrics for a (fictional) song called Robot Lover for another piece, and also...

Well, this poem was for a creative writing class. Later in the term we were given the task of taking something serious we'd written for the class and making it funny. As some of the other students thought that this was a tender and beautiful poem* I went out of my way to spoil it with this comic version:

Dance, Persephone, Dance!

A Goddess arrives at our May Day fair;
The Greeks used to call her Persephone.
Celebrating her seasonal liberty
(She really has the most beautiful hair).

Maiden’s white dress decorated with beads
Promises of Summer, Winter has passed.
Is it a festival or is it a fast?
Turn down the salad with pomegranate seeds.

Her skin’s so pale I’m a bit concerned
She’s had six months in hell (there are reasons)
Personification of the season;
Without Factor 50 she’ll get totally burned

Out at last from the underworld hole
Remembering on this cross quarter day
She follows us as we lead the way
Frowning at the symbolism of the Maypole.

Maybe she won’t and maybe she will
Join us as we celebrate spring.
We gather together to dance and to sing,
She’s lying in the grass looking pretty chill.
4. These together mirror two views of the Greek Gods. The first has them as primal powers, existing in the hearts and minds of people and the new life of the season. The second as powerful, but human-like, the personification of spring hanging out at a May Day festival like a slightly bored teen, or maybe a disapproving young woman.

*Air and land no longer silent and still was admired which is amusing as it was entirely there for the line that follows.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Academy Award For Best Original Song: 1935

The 8th Academy Awards, for 1935, took place in 1936. This was the first year the statuettes were called "Oscars" and also the first year for Best Dance Direction Award, of interest for reasons that maybecome clear. More details at the Wikipedia link.

So what were the nominees for Best Original Song? I'm glad you asked.

"Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat – Music and Lyric by Irving Berlin
"Lovely to Look At" from Roberta – Music by Jerome Kern; Lyric by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh
"Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935 – Music by Harry Warren; Lyric by Al Dubin

So again we have two songs from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, and this time a solo from another big song-and-dance musical. What were they like, what did the Academy choose and how wrong were they?

Cheek to Cheek
So here's the thing; this is a song about dancing and comes with a dance routine (or two in fact). If we ignore the dance we're left with a pleasant enough Irving Berlin romantic song. But by ignoring the dance we lose the whole point of it, that it's about the moment of dancing with someone you love. Anyway, on it's own it's inoffensive and moderately amusing lyrically. Both Astaire and Rogers sing well, but their voices are not first rate, which is just as well as then they would be aggravating over-achievers.

Lovely to Look at
Oh, that's a lovely dance, her dress is great and he really does wear the tails well... what we're judging Best Original Song not Best Dance Direction or Best Art Direction[1]? Well then. This is another dance tune that trips along pleasantly. It is neither exciting nor depressing.

Lullaby of Broadway
Well this became something of a classic, an anthem to New York, or Manhattan, or just Broadway or something. And it's a bit of an old-fashioned show tune but it's a full-bodied show tune with confidence in itself. It has no problem just coming in, declaring that Broadway is great and clearing off. (The singer is Wini Scott). Probably the only thing that would improve it is if about a hundred tap dancers came on and danced to it.
Hmm.

Who won.

Lullaby of Broadway won, and I can't argue with that. Fred and Ginger and Top Hat in particular may have had a greater longevity in the public consciousness, but Gold Diggers of 1935 and Lullaby of Broadway are not forgotten. Is this an example of good taste by the Academy or was this the effect of an Oscar Winner helping make it more than a historical curiosity? Difficult to untangle at this historical distance. Perhaps worth noting that Best Dance Direction went to neither Busby Berkley for Gold Diggers of 1935 or to Astaire's collaborator Hermes Pan, but to Dave Gould for the (to me) forgotten Broadway Melody of 1936 AND Folies Bergère de Paris. Big hits at the time but now obscure.

Next Time

Six songs? Well, can't argue with a larger field although it may take me a little longer to get around to it.

Youtube Playlist

[1] Best Costume Design was not introduced until 1948

 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Academy Award For Best Original Song: 1934

Following the mixed reaction to last night's winner of Best Original Song I wondered how well the Academy does with this category which, although obviously part of their remit, is not at the core of their expertise. Clearly there's only one way to find out and that's start at the beginning.

Note: I'm just diving in, so will make mistakes. Also I'm only going to consider those nominated because anything else is too much like hard work. I'm effectively like one of the lazier busier members of the Academy who don't nominate and just votes on the final shortlist.

1934 - 7th Academy Awards

Musicals took off as soon as talkies did. The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talkie, had six songs in it. The next year (1929) Wikipedia records almost sixty musicals.

However Best Original Song and Best Original Score were first awarded in 1934 (as was Best Editing). The wikipedia article for the 1934 Oscars is here.

Three songs were nominated. They were:


"Carioca" from Flying Down to Rio – Music by Vincent Youmans; Lyric by Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn
"Love in Bloom" from She Loves Me Not – Music by Ralph Rainger; Lyric by Leo Robin
"The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee – Music by Con Conrad; Lyric by Herb Magidson

So two songs from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films at the start of their dance partnership and one of Bing Crosby dueting with Kitty Carlisle. Let's have a listen!

Carioca
Now this is a Latin-American flavoured dance tune for a big song and dance number. In theory we should ignore the visuals (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers first on-screen dance. Although they were not given top billing for the film it did lead to them being the stars of a film called The Gay Divorcee which I may have more to say about) so let's just say I liked this in a slightly unimpressed way. It has a little excitement and rhythm to it which lift it out of it's slightly blandly over-happy rut.

Love In Bloom
This... this is not my thing. This duet is long, slow and dull. Bing and Kitty put on a kind of old-fashioned, over-mannered voice that I'm not a fan of. The interruption and comedy is pretty good.


The Continental

There is a classic dance routine that goes with the tune and at this distance I'm not really able to disentangle the song from the dance which is superb. It is a (ballroom) dance tune, giving it a bit of pace, the lyrics are okay and it's pleasant enough.

The Winner

The winner was The Continental. I didn't like Love in Bloom and not knowing a lot about music in general and film music in particular for 1933 so can only state that from the choices I find this satisfactory. I can't help thinking that it was not the song itself which swayed the Academy but instead this:
Anyway next time songs from 1934. Will it be song and dance again or two people sitting at a piano crooning? Find out when I get around to it!

Youtube Playlist

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Star Wars Pre-Reading

"What Star Wars products do I need to have consumed to understand the new film?" is a question that no one will ever ask me after I spent ten minutes explaining the plot of episode IV and realised I had not mentioned Darth Vader. Ah the trip to see the special edition of The Empire Strikes Back with someone who had not seen the original. So many happy memories.

Still, in case you are curious, here's what I recommend to get you up to speed for The Force Awakens.

1. Droids Cartoon Series.

It only lasted 13 episodes and didn't even have Kenny Baker as R2D2. Still this really gets to the heart of the position of droids in the Star Wars... oh who am I kidding.

2. Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi fighting game.

Why is every character in the original trilogy all learning the same style of Kung Fu? Who cares, fight! Also has Leia in her slave outfit, officially the most modest clothing of any female character in a fighting game ever.

3. B4-D4 section of Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

You're already ten hours into the game by now. Might as well do it! Hard mode: Lie in every conversation.

4. Splinter of the Mind's Eye

This novel was written as a sequel to the original Star Wars film with the possibility of making it into a low budget movie sequel. Instead it made a lot of money so George Lucas made up some other stuff.

5. The Glove of Darth Vader from The Glove of Darth Vader

Darth Vader's glove can deflect blaster bolts, but he can already do that with his force powers AND his lightsaber. Belt, braces and safety-pinned to his shirt! It's that kind of triple-checking and attention to detail that is his hallmark


Anyway, that should bring you up to speed. If after watching the film you still have questions then I can only point you in the direction of The Phantom Menace graphic novel after which your Star Wars curiosity will undoubtedly be satisfied.