Monday, April 30, 2012

The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young of superheroes - Avengers Assemble

Marvel Studios have finally delivered a film with a decent script, a reasonably coherent plot, some decent performances and a proper sense of spectacle. True, it did take them five atttempts to manage all of these at once. But we've set the controls for praise not burial, so let's continue in this vein.

It's safe to assume the 200% increase in genuinely funny one-liners compared to the previous films is due to the presence of Joss Whedon at the controls. RDJ and Mark Ruffalo (taking over the Bruce Banner role from Edward Norton) are well served by this film (or vice versa). For diffferent reasons, so is Scarlett Johanssen (Black Widow), supplying Whedon's deep-seated need to have a badass female martial artist in anything he does. Ever.

Neither Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans have to carry the film and are much the better for it. Tom Hiddleston continues his evil Withnail schtick as Loki to good effect (We must have some booze! We demand to have some booze! And the total subjugation of humanity!). Samuel L Jackson is entertainingly hammy, but can someone give him a decent screen role again?

The aliens were from H R Giger via Michael Bay, and the battle for New York was – even for someone like me who prefers his action slow motion and stylised rather than a whirlwind of CGI chaos – was very well done.

I was grateful that Avengers Assemble was not yet another origin story, nor was it crushed by the need to explore a metaphor with mind-numbing literality. Instead, it could concentrate on its core business of smart-ass remarks and diorama-drama and was all the better for it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Letter of the week: Formula One good for Bahrain protests!

Today's Metro correspondent wants to have their cake and eat it, executing some logical loop-de-loops to suggest that the Grand Prix going ahead was in fact good for Bahraini protesters

As a bonus, here's a further Metro reader writing in from somewhere in the mid nineteenth century to suggest a return to an all-hereditary House of Lords. Props for the swipe at vegetarians, and stay classy Mr/Ms Noblesse Oblige!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Titan Status: Wrathful.

It was a moment of weakness, I swear! It was a rainy Sunday in Cannock, I'd already seen The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists! and I thought, why not?

And so the road to Hades is paved with good intentions.

Wrath Of The Titans is pretty mediocre, though it doesn't have enough personality to be a truly terrible film. So, I'm going to restrict myself to a point about story vs spectacle

The film has one of the richest veins of metaphor and story in European culture as its inspiration. And squanders it in myth-mix 'n' match - here a cyclops, there a chimera - which makes for 'Dude it's...' recognition but no mystery, no reach for the epic. 

Indeed, Wrath's idea of epic is sacrificing script, characterization and a sense of wonder for its true Gods - sh*t blowing up and CGIdolatry. But the size of the spectacle does not equate to the amount of excitement caused. 

For example, the drive to Armageddon to action films is made unusually literal in Wrath by the climactic battle to prevent ambulant volcano and part-time Barry White impersonator Cronos from destroying the world. Flames rain down! Four handed monsters run amok! Winged horses! And it's boring. 

To take an extreme counter-example, Godzilla created more thrills using only a man in a rubber dinosaur costume, a Tokyo diorama and some poor lighting.

And the cast! Sam Worthington at least gets quality screen time. But why throw Rosamund Pike, Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson at a film - the latter two in rent-a-gravitas roles as a goateed Hades and hirsute Zeus - if you're not going to give them any decent lines? They are beards - designed to divert the attention away from the fact that Wrath is uninterested in words, character or even people at all.

 At this rate, I'll start to think that Volcano Boy Cronos is actually the most sympathetic character in Wrath, so before I do let's consider three small not-quite saving graces.

One, there are two a few decent set-pieces in search of a better film: a constantly moving labyrinth which serves as a secret passage to Tartarus is fun and well-animated. And a woodland battle with Cyclopses, [my precious] and giant log traps manages to evoke the spirit of Ray Harryhausen and the ewoks at the same time.

Second, Bill Nighy, channeling Tim The Enchanter from the Holy Grail to cameo as Hephaestus, and treating Wrath with exactly the respect it deserves. 

Finally, I shall never think of Ares again except as a particularly obnoxious professional wrestler.

PS - if you've made it this far, a bonus bit of particularly pedantic grammatical geekery. The film should be called Wrath of the Titan singular, since there is only one titan in the film - Cronos. Everyone else is either a god, a demigod, a monster or just plain human. 

Should I be more proud or more ashamed of myself for spotting that?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Early Tanith Lee reviewed: like Anais Nin ghosting Robert E Howard

I've suggested here before that the hallmark of a good - truly memorable - fantasy story is  that you don't know how you feel about it. As further tokens of fantasy's power to unsettle, I offer these two Tanith Lee early seventies swords 'n' sex 'n' sorcery specials: The Storm Lord and Shadowfire.

And check out these covers! While the art raises questions - chiefly WTF leotard? in the case of The Storm Lord - it does capture the phantasmagorical nature of the contents.

Oh, Tanith Lee! Part 2

Oh, Tanith Lee! Part 1

At least at this early stage in her career, Lee comes on like Anais Nin ghosting Robert E Howard - pecs and princesses pulp fiction with its latent surrealism unfettered. She takes us through stunning descriptive set-pieces - a ship caught by a chain of erupting volcanoes, a gigantic, grave-robbed statue of a snake mother-goddess in a secret cavern, an underground road built by long-dead immortals - which seem more like Freudian dream-work than Tolkien-style landscape porn.

The dead-eyed amorality of her noble savages and decadents, again, amplifies the strangeness. There's little glorification of her muscular protagonists here, each sows the seeds of their own ruin. And while the rapture of the physical remains - there's a lot of sex and some troubling despite-strong-feminist-overtones consent issues which again remind me a bit of Nin - it's free from the sniggering schoolboy behind the male authorial gaze.

This is wierd fiction which defies easy qualification. And there's something in that inability to reduce either The Storm Lord or Shadowfire to their constituent parts which makes both of them worthy of note.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"We've only got one monk, but he can overdub" - tales from Black Sabbath

My local library isn't terribly well-stocked for books - though it's great if you need to use the internet - so I've been reduced to picking pretty much anything off the shelves to serve my reading needs. Hence Tony Iommi's autobiography Iron Man.

I'm inclined to judge it lightly - the Sabbath story is an interesting one even if it's reduced to the picaresque adventures of four Brummies travelling the world and setting fire to their drummer. Which is one thing I learnt from the book they did. A lot.

"Bill, can I set fire to you again?"
"Not just now, I'm busy."
"Oh okay."

[time passes]

"Look, I'm going back to the hotel, so do you still want to set fire to me or what?"

As the bandleader and musician-in-chief Tony Iommi's presumably the most coherent Sab but probably the least engaging to read about. Bassist Geezer Butler wrote most of the lyrics for the songs on which their reputation rests - I don't have much time for Dio - while Ozzy brought the wierd, shamanic presence and disturbed holler before his slide into light entertainment.

Reading about how Tony invented the downturned guitar sound that birthed (no, Tim, spawned) metal is somehow less interesting. And a blow-by-blow account of the production of every Sabbath album into the 90's and beyond even more so.

Whereas what really interests me about Black Sabbath is how four blokes from Aston could tap into the deep vein of blues and folk singing about death, doom 'n' Armageddon and jump-start it for the modern age. Ozzy's voice - so high, so out of place in modern metal - suddenly sounds a lot more right placed in this old-time company.

With Led Zeppelin, musically a much more 'progressive' band than Sabbath, lyrically speaking, you get the refusal of the present ("Womannnn! I want to make looooove to you! In Rivendell!!"). With Deep Purple, you get rock'n'roll tropes underpinned by a mighty slab of The Funk.

But with Sabbath, when they weren't dabbling in pyromania or singing about Fairies in Boots, you get a band - perhaps more by accident than design, certainly much more on-record than off - that stared down the barrel of the modern age.

Literally, in the case of War Pigs.

Which is what I would argue makes Sabbath more culturally - if not musically - more interesting than their one-time peers.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Brand new you're retro - Clock company takes my home town's name in vain

I'd like to say I wasn't taken in by it, but I was taken in by it. On the second picture below of the clock I scored at a charity shop in Cannock, you can see the name 'Towcester Clock Works' on the dial. Now, I'd never heard of a clock manufacturer in Towcester, but given that my knowledge of its history extended to the Romans and Prince Rupert, I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt and check my history online later.

Only to find that TCW is a brand name for a retro-style clock brand based in Newport Pagnell invoking Towcester as some token of early-to-mid twentieth century authenticity.

Now, I might make a cheap shot here about my childhood home being the Town That Time Forgot, but I'm not sure about how I feel about it being appropriated in this way. By printing the lie, are we opening up a vein of alternate history which sees Towcester as a clock-making centre, the town of a thousand ticks? Or are we just cheapening what really was?