The Expendables 2
August 30, 2012 by Nick
The Expendables 2 is more of the same, with everything that that entails. To explain how I feel about it will require a lot of digressing and pop culture references, thereby infusing the film with subtext and depth it definitely lacks in, and of, itself.
I saw Ghost Rider 1 and 2. After seeing Ghost Rider 1 and deciding it was one of the very worst films I had ever seen, I somehow still saw the second film. Now, I know the second film features large differences and isn’t really a straight sequel, but the omens were not particularly good for the film.
After seeing Expendables I decided it was a very bad film that had been made about 25 years too late and decided I would never watch it again. However, I did see it again. Only an even dumber and less good version of it. It was called Expendables 2.
Expendables 2 is a film that is nearly completely devoid of (intentional) humour or irony. It features old men who were best suited to this kind of film 20 or more years ago walking round shooting things. Direct to video and failed TV series experts rub shoulders with men who look like steroid abuse has brought about strokes and younger actors either phoning it in or faintly embarrassed to be there. The only person deserving of a.ny credit whatsoever is Bruce Willis, as he at least seems to realise how ridiculous it all is
There is an old Mary Whitehouse Experience sketch about how you can tell which character is going to die in a war film. To actually adhere to it in a film made post 1960 without any sense of irony? Oh dear.
When I was about ten I read reprints of Marvel’s the ‘Nam, which was actually better than I realised at the time. In one Michael Golden illustrated segment one of the main characters (who actually dies adhering to the rules of war films) comments on how a John Wayne film was utterly ridiculous because none of the characters have any cover in a gun fight and they would all be killed. In pretty much every scene I was reminded of this. Every single shot a hero makes despatches a baddie. Every single shot a baddie makes misses, even when the heroes are walking down the street with no cover and ambling along because of their geriatric hips.
That’s not even the worst of it, though. In nearly every single action set piece the climax is brought about by someone previously not involved with the events suddenly appearing to aid the heroes. One character exists only to appear at opportune moments, save the day, and leave. It just adds an extra layer of unintentional ridiculousness to the whole film.
And Simon West, the director, is not getting any better. The action isn’t particularly exciting and he doesn’t manage to coax a good performance out of everyone. I’m not sure if he just gave up or it was beyond him to begin with.
August 28, 2012 by Nick
Bad Education, a new sitcom on BBC Three, fervently hopes you have either never seen Teachers or found it too long or subtle. Teachers was (for the first three series, at least) a very funny comedic drama about a group of teachers at an inner city comprehensive. Bad Education is more of a sitcom, with more broadly defined characters, a stack of cyphers and running jokes after just two episodes.
Bluntly, it isn’t very good. Where Teachers would exaggerate for comedic effect and have moments of absurdity in the background, Bad Education doesn’t even seek to attempt anything like realism. While this isn’t necessarily a detriment to comedy, it completely wrecks any attempts at character moments and leaves precious little else to hold the viewer’s attention when the comedy elements are (as they often fail to be) crushingly unfunny.
The main character is a posh teacher with webbed feet who allows himself to be bullied by pupils, is lazy, incompetent and has a crush on another teacher. We’re meant to care about the fact he has a crush and sympathise with him, but the situations he finds himself in means it is impossible to take him seriously and he is so annoying that i find myself wishing that something dreadful befalls him. Preferably something dreadful and genuinely funny.
And that is the main problem with the show: the jokes aren’t funny enough and there are too few of them. That’s not to say that there is a large gap between each joke. On the contrary: often they run one after the other or even at the same time. The problem is they are usually the very same joke, done with varying degrees of ineffectiveness, that really don’t get any more welcome through extreme repetition.
The other characters, too, are deeply annoying. The two authority figures are every bad character from every bad British sitcom (tellingly, nearly all of them commissioned by the BBC) over the last 30 years. The love interest is so wet and uninteresting it is impossible to tell why anyone would actively pursue her. And the protagonist’s behaviour around her completely vomitous.
Hopefully Bad Education won’t be recommissioned. We have a strong tradition of humorous school based comedy in this country: from Tom Brown to Molesworth, via Teachers and the recent Inbetweeners. This doesn’t follow that proud tradition and is merely one of those sitcoms on the BBC that inexplicably exists. Unfortunately they also have an annoying and utterly confusing habit of also being renewed.
August 26, 2012 by Nick
Joe Kubert died on August 12th, 2012. He was a highly influential comics artist, but has also written and inked comics as well as setting up a school for aspiring artists bearing his name.
I have to admit, I personally don’t care much for Kubert’s art. I find his finishing to look very rough and it detracts from the structure. I can see that he has all the fundamentals right, but it is not for me. When he inks I find that he overpowers the underlying art and makes it less appealing.
But his school has been incredible. A lot of artists have come through there over the last 25 years or so, including Joe’s sons Andy and Adam, Bart Sears, Lee Weeks, Alex Maleev (although he left early having been told they had no more to teach him), Tom Raney and Adam Warren. That’s an incredible list (and only a small selection of the people who have entered the comic industry from the school.)
Bart Sears, as rightfully maligned as he may be, is one of my main influences. He wrote a drawing column for Wizard Magazine that I have nearly all of. Thankfully his influence no longer comes through in the way I do faces but it probably does in terms of musculature and posing.
Adam Kubert is a great superhero artist. I first noticed him on his initial Wolverine run but he has had runs on other X-Men titles, notably the launch of Ultimate X-Men. He combines great use of light and dark, kineticism and expressionistic faces with sheer energy. I love his stuff.
Andy Kubert is arguably the more successful of the two brothers. I don’t care for his work as much, everyone looks to have the same face. He was the regular artist on the adjectiveless X-Men title for a great number of years and now gets high profile jobs at DC. Some of which I end up getting because he gets teamed with Grant Morrison.
Lee Weeks was the artist on Daredevil when I started buying it regularly. He is a traditional superhero artist who did great work but sadly never seems to have achieved a high profile and whose work is too sporadic and rare.
Adam Warren is a guy who brought Manga influence to American comics before it became fashionable and during and after the backlash against it. He has a different sensibility and is one of the few artists whose work I will always buy.
Tom Raney is another string superhero artist, who also worked within the X-Men offices for a while and did some issues of Stormwatch with Warren Ellis before the Authority direction. His work is always attractive.
Alex Maleev is fantastic. He joined Brian Bendis for some of the best Daredevil comics ever. For a long time I had a piece of his art as the background on my desktop. He is another guy with a strong sense of light and dark who manages to make very beautiful and naturalistic art.
August 6, 2012 by Nick
The Raven is directed by James McTeigue and stars John Cusack in a fictional retelling of the last days of Edgar Allen Poe. Borrowing from the concept of the odd couple and detective fiction, the film sees Poe teaming up with a police detective to solve a series of grisly murders based on Poe’s work.
Now, McTeigue directed V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin. One of these is a great film and one of these is a fairly stupid film with stealth armies that tends to look great. If nothing else I expected Poe to look great visually. Unfortunately, it’s too dark and murky. Scenes are lit so there is very dark grey juxtaposed onto black, and any sense of depth within a location or drama from events and character interaction is lost in a sea of near impenetrable darkness.
John Cusack is always watchable, but here he is allied to a script which is ridiculous, dull and takes itself way too seriously. Poe is bitter and seemingly destined to forever lose the loves of his life, and spends his time railing against his contemporaries, calling them hacks and belittling them, trying to get drunk despite having no money, and trying to marry the daughter of a local businessman.
For the most part Cusack sticks to the script, and you get no sense of his own personality coming through rather than him acting. There is one point, however, where he shouts “huh?” and rather wrecks the illusion. Were the film better, it wouldn’t be quite as welcome.
The eventual reveal as to who the villain of the piece is isn’t much of a surprise. I don’t know if this was because it wasn’t surprising of indicative of how little I actually cared. I watched the entire film but a combination of my own ennui and the visuals led me to not actually care who the murderer was or their motives. Their motives seemed a little simplistic but, again, I put that down to the film not being very good.
As with a very bad Sherlock Holmes I once watched starring Rupert Everett, the film takes characters from a different era and tries enforcing modern sensibilities onto them. Unfortunately this manifests as modern clichés and plot devices that become even less credible and even more risible due to their anachronism. They stick out like a sore thumb, partially due to the very real lack of quality in the overall piece.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows
August 4, 2012 by Nick
Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows is a sequel to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which starred Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law. It’s set in Victoria London, as opposed to Moffat’s retelling on television, and focuses on some of the earthier aspects of Holmes. His physical prowess is played up, for example, and his relationship with Watson is less staid than it is often portrayed.
The first film had its moments, but was largely unfulfilling. The second movie, sadly, continues in much of the same vein. Holmes is brilliant but there is precious little explanation of his deductions, rather a focus on his observation (picking up details that make the solution obvious are far less fun than actually using them as evidence that you still have to draw conclusions from and extrapolate) and a lot of scenes played for laughs. He is shown as a master planner, an acute observer, but not so much the detective.
The plot, such as it is, focuses on Europe on the brink of war. This seems to be a staple of adventures set in the late Victorian era and is, to my knowledge, broadly accurate. It doesn’t, however, stop it being a cliché and makes the villain’s motives rather predictable. Holmes, naturally, is attempting to prevent the conflict by thwarting the schemes of Moriarty. Moriarty doesn’t really strike me as particularly Machiavellian or psychotic in this, rather coming across as someone focused on minutae and rather pedestrian. It seems a waste.
There are, however, a few things that redeem the film. Firstly, the interplay between Downey and Law is enjoyable. Secondly, Downey is eminently watchable. Law makes for a far more capable Watson than we are sometimes shown, and his exertions actually form an important part of the overall plot.
And then there is the sequence in the munitions/weapons factory and the woods. It’s an honest to god well orchestrated action scene that manages to marry Holmes being one step ahead, Watson being surprisingly capable, slow motion action that is well orchestrated, a very real sense of risk and high stakes, destruction, aesthetics and special effects. One of my complaints about action films is how little most of them seem to have learned from the Matrix. Here’s a climatic set piece that borrows slow motion, moving cameras and infuses it with grace and excitement at the same time.
Unfortunately, one rather good set piece aside, A Game of Shadows is underwhelming and definitely doesn’t really appeal on an intellectual level. It passes the time but doesn’t really deserve the heritage of the Holmes name.
July 30, 2012 by Nick
I find myself in the odd situation of largely agreeing with something that George Galloway said (I am paraphrasing here): That the Telegraph and Argus (local newspaper) is too cosy with local council and that this harms local debate. Although I don’t particularly think the T and A is as sinister in its motives as Galloway appears to suggest, it is certainly complacent and seems to do precious little in the way of actual investigation or journalism.
The T and A used to boast that it had more readers than all the national papers combined within the Bradford district. It doesn’t mention that anymore. There used to be news vendors around the city centre. Now there are none. Whatever cachet it used to have, whatever purpose it used to serve, is dying even more rapidly than print press as a whole. The very particular death of the organ of a diseased city.
One of the problems I have with the T and A currently is its refusal to critically address the situation with the Odeon in Bradford city centre. The council has seemingly decided to pull down the Odeon to make way for more shops and offices. This is a ridiculous decision. Bradford is full to overflowing with unused office space. Soon we will have the offices of Thomas Cook joining the list of purpose built offices within the centre ready for immediate occupation.
And the idea of utilising the area for shops is even stupider. Bradford has a slew of closed and boarded up retail premises. We also have a strong track history of demolishing previously useful buildings to create new shops and then not actually managing to build the promised stores. Rawson Market’s old site was demolished to create a new and dynamic market hall. After the market hall failed to materialise and most of the market traders in the city had gone bust it was redeveloped into a couple of cut price shops and a stack of empty units.
Westfield is the same situation on a scale so large as to become farcical. We have a pit seemingly swallowing in the lifeblood and ambition of the city where WH Smiths, BHS, Mothercare, Pizza Hut and a raft of smaller businesses used to be.
This, clearly, is not enough failure for the council, and not something that the T and A is particularly bothered in covering. We have no coverage of the real and vocal opposition to creating yet another hole where our heritage once was.
I wish I could say that the blithe reprinting of establishment agenda as news was a new phenomenon. Unfortunately I would be as disingenuous as a typical T and A front page: in the early nineties the local (then newly privatised) water company floated the idea of standpipes and cutting off water to homes to deal with the drought. The T and A seemingly published their press releases as front page news without fact checking them. The crisis was averted without the standpipes ever being needed. Not at all because they allegedly couldn’t be used as it was impossible to isolate their supply while cutting off the water supply around them . . .
Batman: Year One
July 28, 2012 by Nick
Batman: Year One, is my favourite Batman comic. It features Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli producing their second best work. David Mazzuchelli is the single most underrated superhero artist and as good as anyone else the genre has ever produced. Frank Miller, on his day (which, sadly, seems to be nearly 3 decades hence), writes operatic and mythic superheroes like no other. Together they created the best Daredevil comic ever and the best Batman comic. And the one that forms much of the basis of Batman Begins.
Batman: Year One is the story of Batman before he was the Batman, as he becomes the Batman and his first interactions with the denizens of Gotham. The great scene in Batman Begins where Batman is beseiged by the SWAT team before escaping under the cover of bats. Except it’s done even better in the comic.
In the comic we see Bruce returning from years away to work out how to utilise his training to fight crime in Gotham. He tries but makes a mess of it, eventually coming face to face with a bat and deciding on his new identity.
As he sets about fighting crime he allies himself with the DA, Harvey Dent (another event utilised by Nolan throughout his trilogy) and a police captain called James Gordon. It is through Gordon’s eyes we see much of the comic, with him providing the human counterbalance to the insanity of Gotham and also the mythic introduction of a masked vigilante. It is Gordon’s mistakes, failings and successes that provide much of the emotional heart of the story. And it is this iteration of Gordon that I most clearly see in Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the character.
As well as being inspirational, the comic is brilliant in its own right. Miller is a master of efficiency throughout, using different character’s voices and creating a world of pervasive corruption where hope and nobility are in short supply. His Batman is still learning and his Gordon looks for redemption. But, more than this, he knows when to let Mazzuchelli tell the story without any words.
David Mazzuchelli uses a slightly paired down style here, with a deceptively simple line. There is an economy in his work that is incredible, but also a level of thought and craft that I am only now coming to appreciate. The pacing is slightly unusual in superhero comics, which is largely down to panel placement and shot selection. He marries traditional superhero proportions and techniques, with brilliant pacing and storytelling and something akin to Alex Toth’s finishing. It’s breathtaking work and would carry the comic all by itself, even if it wasn’t brilliant to begin with.
Grant Morrison’s Batman
July 26, 2012 by Nick
There are two main schools of thought about Grant Morrison. I’m firmly in the “Grant Morrison is a genius” camp. And, when it comes to his superhero work, nowhere is this clearer than how he handles Batman.
When Morrison rejuvenated the JLA he did so partially by showing the value of Batman to the team. Initially the sole human on a team with people with the powers of gods, he was the character to work out who their foes were, what their weaknesses were and to defeat them pretty much single handedly. Batman the detective. Batman the genius. Batman the fighter. Batman the man who never, ever, gives up. This is the Batman I recognise: the one who should be redundant in a world of gods yet raises himself up to a point where he is not just their equal but their actual superior. Through sheer force of will.
Years later Morrison took on the Batman ongoing title. Now, over the years, Batman has had some decidedly odd adventures. For a long time he was dreadfully miscast in adventures against comedy aliens and in stories with ridiculous gimmicks. What any sane and normal writer would have done is to ignore these stories completely. Morrison, however, is utterly and completely mad and manages to craft stories that have the reader voluntarily embracing drug logic and hallucination and suspending their disbelief to a point no other writer can manage. He started with some mad ideas and got progressively weirder and stranger, incorporating disparate stories into a rich tapesterial whole.
During his run he showed a Batman who is prepared for everything, even the unthinkable and the very loss of his own sanity (a homage to a dreadful comic from the past and the utterly illogical logical conclusion of Batman’s propensity for planning and preparation). He also showed the value of Batman as an idea and brand, franchising crime fighter using his own animal based totem across cities, countries and continents.
He had Batman die, travel through his own past, appoint his successor and engage with his enemies while challenging his very convictions and presumed history. It’s been a mad ride through crazy worlds navigated with the utmost understanding of the core character and simultaneous disregard for, and reverence of, his rich continuity. He seems to be easing off a little now, having set up a richer status quo that allows for everything that has come before, and is merely content to create brilliant comics full of invention and innovation. And Batmen who are utterly recognisable and distinct as the characters that they should be.
July 24, 2012 by Nick
As much as The Dark Knight Rises takes a flawed premise and creates a great story, Kingdom Come takes the perfect foundations and somehow crafts a story that is less than the sum of its parts.
Kingdom Come is a painted mini series that was published by DC Comics in 1996 and written by Mark Waid. The real driving force behind it, however, is Alex Ross. Alex Ross is primarily influenced by Norman Rockwell and Andrew Loomis, and crafts superheroes that look real in worlds that are believable. He can sell you on almost any idea and has created some truly incredible art over the years (especially with his covers).
Kingdom Come features a large ensemble cast but is really about Superman. His limitations and his failure. Rejected by a population that finds him out of touch and ineffectual, he retreats from the outside world that has taken more pragmatic and final heroes to its bosom and rejected what it sees as temporary solutions. However, Batman has remained committed to his mission because Gotham needs him.
Batman has had his back broken, his secret identity made public and his home destroyed. None of this matters to a man with a single minded purpose. Throughout the comic he is proven right, time and time again. He is also the real victor, whose aims are most clearly realised by the eventual climax of the comic. It’s a Batman I have absolutely no problem recognising and believing in. He feels so utterly right.
Superman, too, is close to where I believe he should be: a being of great power who somehow never managed to make real or lasting change. More useful as an icon and symbol than a leader or decision maker. Able to change the course of a mighty river but carried along by the merest of tides. He’s the anti thesis of the Batman and truly lost at the start of the book. He also makes a series of poor decisions, exacerbating the very situation he tries to avert.
The climax of the comic is a pitched battle between different factions, with Batman coming in to prevent and contain the battle rather than to anoint a victor. It’s also heavy on biblical imagery (as is the whole story) and features a really, really strong moment that Ross and Waid sell perfectly. And the immediate aftermath is one of the great pieces of Superman imagery.
Overall, though, Kingdom Come is a comic that has too many characters and probably features the wrong character as its protagonist. The real hero is the Batman, and arguably Superman is as great a villain as any other within the pages. But it looks beautiful and has some great sequences.
The Dark Knight Returns
July 22, 2012 by Nick
The Dark Knight Returns is the comic that the Dark Knight Rises will almost certainly be most linked to. It’s one of the most important superhero comics ever made, and was published by DC Comics in 1986, written and drawn by Frank Miller and tells the story of an aged Batman returning to Gotham City when he feels needed.
Although I think it is a great comic, I do think it is overrated and that there are other, better, Batman comics out there. However, it does a great many things right and is hugely enjoyable. It was apparently written by Frank Miller as a reaction to the realisation that he had grown older than his boyhood hero (Batman) and gave us, at once, an ending to the Batman story and a Batman that has entered middle age in a world of much greater complexity.
He also created a sequel, called The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It’s a dreadful comic that did much to destroy his reputation and should be avoided. Let’s ignore that and try to pretend it never happened.
The main problem I have with the Dark Knight Returns is that the Batman would ever abandon a world that needs him. As much as his return makes the hairs on my neck stand up every single time I read it, I have a hard time reconciling it with my view of the character. This aside, the story is great and crams a lot into a relatively small space. Batman experiences his origin again, the echoes driving him almost insane and convincing him that he needs to return.
As he returns he is both the man he once was and aware that he never can be. We know that he can’t continue down this path indefinitely and also that the world he is in is not necessarily one that he is suited to. His former allies have grown old and deserted him, the world has moved on and his enemies changed and vanished. However, they soon reassert and return, as if drawn back by an interconnected web of dependent psychosis.
The comic has a lot of great moments. As much as I have problems with some of the underlying characterisation there are many great points that emotionally connect with me. And it shows that the Batman, with enough time and planning, can defeat anyone. Even Superman. Even the rigours of time.
The art is strong throughout, tending to an iconic level of abstraction that sells the mythic tone and makes everything readable. Miller was, and is, a master cartoonist who understands comics like few others. And this is one of the best examples of his art.