Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rebuilding Evangelion

Evangelion 1.11 - You Are (Not) Alone
Evangelion 2.22 - You Can (Not) Advance

Angel attack
I try my darndest to avoid fanboyism. It leads to an abandonment of logic and an obsession with something that's ultimately futile. It also tends to clog up the Internet with idiots. However, I admit this: I'm an Evangelion fanboy. I just absolutely adore the franchise. I can see the flaws - how Shinji is a moany little so-and-so, how it's overly sexualised, how the ending of the series makes very little sense (although I would strongly argue they sorted out that issue with End of Evangelion). I still love it though. I could barely contain my excitement when I got to go to Evangelion World in Japan's Fuji-Q Highland and pose for pictures with a GIANT FUCKING UNIT-01 HEAD! Made my frickin' year. In short: My name is Stephen, and I'm and Evangelion fanboy.

I was also a bit late to the party, only sitting down and watching the entirety of Neon Genesis in late 2009/early 2010. So I didn't have long to wait before getting to see the beginnings of long-awaited Rebuild of Evangelion - a four feature film 'reimagining' of the admittedly flawed series. I got to see both early last year at a local anime weekend, including a very early look at 2.0. They - well, the second one, definitely - lived up to my wildest expectations. A year later, You Can (Not) Advance has finally been released on Blu-Ray, and for me was an exciting opportunity to sit down and re-evaluate the two movies. Coming on the eve of the release of the return of a far inferior franchise concerning giant robots, it couldn't have been more welcome.

(Note: 1.11 and 2.22 are the numbers used to differentiate the home releases of the films from the theatrical cuts 1.0 and 2.0. The difference? The home releases add a few extra scenes to the initial theatrical cut)

A quick introduction to Evangelion for those of you who may not have experienced it in any form yet. It takes place in Japan about two decades after an incident known as the Second Impact, an event that wiped out half of humanity. In Tokyo III - the fortified city that acts as the main setting for the story - a teenager called Shinji Ikari is called into an organisation called NERV by his cold, mostly absent father Gendo. He has been chosen to pilot a giant semi-robotic, semi-genetically modified Evangelion unit. He, along with other pilots as the series progresses, are tasked with preventing invading creatures known only as Angels from penetrating NERV headquarters and kick starting an apocalyptic Third Impact by melding with the secrets hidden deep underneath Tokyo III. There's also lots of stuff about teenage awkwardness, religion and hot spring penguins.

Evangelion 1.11 is a hard one to come to a definitive final conclusion on. Don't get me wrong - three viewings in and I still think it's great. But there is most certainly something... well, if not disappointing, anti-climactic about it. It barely deviates from series - what we get is a high-def and rather condensed version of three early story arcs from Neon Genesis. It definitely tightens up the pacing while retaining the core themes and ideals - Shinji's social insecurities and daddy issues, Rei's mysteriousness, hedgehog dilemmas, the shadowy motives of NERV, the even more shadowy motives of SEELE, and overall a compelling bleak vision of the world two decades after a catastrophic event known as the Second Impact. It does speed up parts of the story too - Kaworu, for example, appears, meaning his significant role later on won't feel as sudden, and there's even an early mention of the Human Instrumentality Project. Overall, though, it's the same story, but prettier and shorter.

And there's nothing inherently wrong with that, given that there's nothing inherently wrong with the first six episodes of Neon Genesis. It looks absolutely stunning, no doubt about that. The action scenes are delivered with aplomb, some of the finest battle sequences ever illustrated. The Angel designs are excellent. The characters are all as iconic as ever. Yet there are times when lengthy sequences play out almost verbatim - like the fifth Angel arc that culminates in an epic snipe-off - that it becomes hard to tell what exactly the point is. It's a welcome introduction for newbies, and a pleasant graphical update for the fans, but were Hideki Anno and co. missing out on an opportunity to do something brand new with Evangelion after all these years? Given the general finality of the series and its subsequent feature film(s), a reboot seemed the only solution, but did it have to be this loyal?

It's a question answered with a bang by the follow up. From the opening sequence it quickly establishes itself as a pretty darn radical departure from the original TV series. We open with an exciting action sequence, in which a mysterious EVA pilot tackles an Angel in a non-Japanese setting (complete with broken Engrish! Don't be concerned when the first words you hear are in English rather than Japanese. If it continues make sure to change your audio and subtitle settings in the haste though!). The pilot is Mari Makinami Illustrious, or Token New Merchandise character. Despite having two major and rather excellent action sequences to herself, she's a fairly redundant addition narratively - we can only hope she has some use in 3.0 and beyond. She's certainly the worst thing about 2.22, and she's not even that bad, just sort of pointless, and absent for the majority of the next hour.

The rest of the film is glorious. Again, the basic plot is roughly similar to Neon Genesis. Asuka arrives and is instantly rather moody, Rei begins to open up and Shinji begins to discover that he is (not) alone. However, only the outline is similar to the original story, and there are radical alterations to events from the off. Asuka, for example, takes Toji's place in a pivotal sequence, while the final act hastily speeds up events from the final episodes of the series, leaving the audience excitingly wondering what crazy avenues they're going to go down with subsequent sequels. A post-credit appearance from an important character shows that they're not quite ready to present the audience with a full on Third Impact, but they've already started presenting sequences on the grand scale of the apocalyptic post-series End of Evangelion.

I'm getting ahead of myself. On a purely visceral level, You Can (Not) Advance is a joy. The Angel designs are more imaginative then they've ever been, and the animation is rarely less than stunning. Musically, it's also a (deeply unusual, it should be said) triumph. Indeed, the childlike, innocent music that plays over two of the more intense scenes make them all the more haunting - one is undeniably amongst the most shocking & violent sequences ever drawn, while the mind-melting conclusion is a thing of great beauty. Alongside the traditional series music cues and the inevitable Beautiful World remix over the credits (basically the Rebuild's Fly Me to the Moon) it sounds like nothing else, and consistently looks the part.

Misato makes angry face
Evangelion has always been an odd 'beast' - moments of quiet character development, wacky humour (Pen-Pen!) and over-sexualised fan service alongside surreal religious & mythical imagery, complex thematic concerns and of course an often head scratching central plot that takes in everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to human evolution. It's what gives it such a unique identity, and why it is beloved by its fans. The Rebuild so far has proven more than capable of capturing the careful balance that has defined this franchise thus far, while bringing along some impressive tricks of its own given that budget is no longer such a fatal concern. As 2.22 enters its remarkable final moments - easily one of cinema's finest cliffhangers - it's hard not to be be wowed by the achievement. Because for all its faults - and let's be honest, the characters don't need to be in states of undress quite as frequently as they are here, although there are a few moments of blatant fan servicing that will elicit serious chuckling - there is nothing like Evangelion. It's a meandering, complex, intelligent mess of a story, but one that rarely misses a chance to either amuse, entertain, shock or straight up amaze.

As Michael Bay once more struggles to create anything remotely compelling out of robots beating the shit out of each other, Evangelion proves that in the hands of talented artists robots kicking ass need not be lowest common denominator stuff. There are minor similarities between the two franchises - hyper sexualisation and a penchant for wackiness, most notably - but only one provides payoffs alongside the flaws. As a fan I was always going to inject these Evangelion films directly into my veins, but thus far the Rebuild looks like it will match up to even the most rabid of fan expectations. As the credits rolled towards their Neon Genesis-esque "Next time on Evangelion...", I was once again damn proud to be an Evangelion fanboy.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: The Guard

Muddled Subversion

The Guard is a good film buried in a merely OK film. For every clever genre subversion there’s a redundant subplot. For every slice of surprising pitch black comedy there’s a contrasting burst of lazy broad rural humour. For every positive there’s a negative. However, it is a film that at the very least has a unique identity. That it’s a disappointingly inconsistent identity is the problem.

Brendan Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a seemingly apathetic rural Garda in Connemara. We’re introduced to him as he lazily watches on as a group of drunk lads total their car, in what possibly serves as a strange parody of those cursed road safety ads. Boyle casually surveys the scene, and merely picks an acid tab out of one of the strewn corpses’ pocket and eats it. He’s an anti-role model, breaking the law as frequently as he enforces it. But he’s a good guy really: as we’re frequently reminded in two dull subplots.

Anyway, his comfortably casual existence is interrupted when there’s a homicide in his vicinity, the same day a new recruit from Dublin joins him. The apparently ‘occult’ motivation for the murder quickly links in with a half billion dollar drug run FBI Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle peculiarly slumming it in an Irish film) is in Galway to investigate. The two mismatched lawmen reluctantly join forces to track down the culprits.

It does sound like the stuff of countless generic cop thrillers, but that’s sort of the point. To writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s credit, he presents the tale with tongue deep in cheek. In many ways, it’s a spiritual successor to Poitin – another film that translated action film tropes to rural Ireland. McDonagh’s vision is more compelling overall though. When it works, it works well - there's even hints of classic Westerns in there (especially in the score). The film really comes into its own in the final ten minutes – a surreal, explosive action scene purposefully at odds with all that came before it. It’s delivered smartly and tightly directed. It’s in rare moments like this that the Guard comes across as a witty, clever parody of genre cinema.

Such moments, however, aren’t all that frequent. A strange semi-romantic subplot is clearly trying to emulate unnecessary love interests (played here by Katarina Cas). However, it is neither interesting nor funny enough to achieve this goal, and hence just clogs up screen time. Another overlong tangent focuses on Boyle’s relationship with his sick mother (Fionnula Flanagan – “that old lady from Lost” amongst many other roles) – it’s there to remind us that despite his peculiarities Boyle is fundamentally a decent guy. Alas, McDonagh takes too long to make that relatively simple point.

For the most part, The Guard maintains a surreal, offbeat tone throughout. It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly makes it so odd, but odd it is. The cinematography is sharp, even if the screening I was at suffered from dodgy framing throughout. It’s refreshingly unusual, and in fairness there are moments when the film surprises with lashings of dark comedy and clever digs at Irish culture. These sit alongside less successful gags though – other bits resort to the sort of broad ‘rural eccentricities’ humour we’ve seen many times before. It’s telling that beloved bumpkin Pat Shortt makes an appearance – his bumbling delivery at odds with the darker themes currently running underneath the surface. It’s a tone that gives the film a unique feel, but an inconsistent one. There are laughs to be had, but few belly laughs. In an attempt to please every kind of sense of humour, it seems the film is pandering to too many. There’s a weird kid obsessed with the IRA. There are two Waco jokes, one ruining the other. There are a lot of digs at Dublin and Limerick. There are even a few penis jokes!

Luckily, the whole meandering thing is anchored by an impressive performance from Gleeson. Boyle himself is a towering and enigmatic creation, and one certainly at odds with the bumbling oaf suggested by the trailer (albeit one whose traits are painted in unfortunately broad strokes at times). Indeed, the rest of the performers find it hard to match the manic energy Gleeson brings to the film. Cheadle does little than play the token American, but that’s all the role requires. Mark Strong feels wasted as he phones in a performance as a tough drug smuggler, but he’s backed up by an impressive David Wilmot as a jittering sociopath (not psychopath!) and a so-so Liam Cunningham playing Liam Cunningham.

The Guard is certainly an enjoyable diversion, one that bravely deviates from the norm in terms of delivery. However, it’s also a mess. It’s the kind of film that has country folk making ‘hilarious’ racial slurs in one scene, and existential undercurrents in the next (a ‘life is utterly meaningless’ thread runs throughout). It’s an interesting mesh of ideas and concepts, but one that only rarely feels like it fulfils the potential. It’s not the car crash that opens the film, nor is it an acid trip.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hit Or Shit? 14th June 2011

Judging Books by Their Covers Since 2011

Don't be Afraid of the Dark:

It might just be me, but everytime I hear this film mentioned I can't help but think of that weird 90s kids television show Are You Afraid of the Dark? I'm inevitably hit with disappointment when I realise it's simply another Guillmero Del Toro produced haunted house film. It looks... OK I guess, but there's a veritable landslide of horror cliches in this two minute montage alone. Watching it I'm also reminded of that dreadful remake of The Haunting from 1999. In uninteresting trivia, that was the first ever twelves rated film I legally went to see in the cinema. It was SHIT. This probably will be too.

The Muppets / Green with Envy

It's certainly a witty trailer. We're lured into "oh, not another rom-com!" but the reveal is a pleasant one. We're in muppet town. The trailer suggests a sense of humour and playfulness, as well as a pleasantly irreverent tone and colourful production values (dig that big dance scene). Now, this one could certainly go either way - it could be too childish, or too irreverent if such a thing is possible. But Segel and Adams are a talented duo when they have a good script to work with, so cautiously I'll suggest it could be a HIT. We'll wait and see.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

It was hard to miss this trailer online when it leaked a few weeks ago. And with good cause. Watching it in higher definition reaffirms it as the finest teaser trailer of recent times. On a surface level you have the blistering Karen O / Trent Reznor Zepplin cover, and a frantic editing style to match. It's the rare trailer that is worth rewatching. Most impressively, it does what most teasers should do - tease. For those who aren't familiar with the Millennium trilogy there's a visually impressive thriller to start piquing interests, minus any sort of story spoilers. For fans, there are tantalising glimpses at familiar characters, locales and events from the novel. There's little given away to either group - and most crucially, only the briefest of looks at Rooney Mara's transformation into Lisbeth Salander. Fincher has rightfully refused to fully give away his trump card just yet. The result is the finest piece of cinema marketing since Fincher's last epic trailer for the Social Network. I had at one point written a remake of the worthy if unspectacular Swedish film off as pointless. Now I question why I ever doubted Fincher (Benjamin Button discounted, of course). Bring on the feel bad film of Christmas. It's almost a shame it will inevitably be preceded by more predictable theatrical trailers. HIT.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review - X-Men: First Class

Must try harder

In many ways, X-Men: First Class is a fanboy's wet dream. It's full of increasingly obscure mutants, explanations for every little detail you've never wondered about (Why is Xavier in a wheelchair? Where did Magneto's helmet come from? Why the fuck are they called X-Men?), cameo appearances (one series regular has an inspired few seconds on screen) and all manner of other things designed to cause nerdgasms. Whether it's loyal to the comics or not doesn't really matter: this is a valiant effort to put the franchise back on track after a certain trilogy closer and a woeful Origin story. Shame, then, they kind of forgot to build a good film around the good intentions.

I'm not a negative person, so let me begin with the positives. First: a synopsis. Superpowered Charles Xavier (aka Professor X aka James McAvoy) meets superpowered Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto aka Michael Fassbender) through a series of events involving the CIA and nuclear submarines. They throw together a ragtag group of young mutants - including Charles' old friend Raven (aka Mystique aka Jennifer Lawerence) - to put a stop to the dastardly plans of a one Sebastian Shaw (aka Kevin Bacon) and his equally ragtag group of evil mutants. It's also the 1960s.

That last point is important, because it's by far the best thing about the film. The set designers, cinematographer and, of course, director Matthew Vaughn (the man who impressed with Stardust and cooked up something semi-interesting with the flawed Kick Ass) do a wonderful job in conjuring up some high-camp retro chic. There are super naff war rooms, epically cheesy maps (you'll see what I mean - it involves a smirking Bacon) and ludicrous integrations of real-life historical events like The Cuban Missile Crisis. All this is rendered in glorious primary colours - a true rarity in this age of blockbusters filmed in various tones of grey, brown and black. It's a brilliantly silly setting, reminiscent at times of everything from James Bond to Mad Men. And the Cold War stuff ties nicely into the Magneto vs Prof. X ideology conflict that defines this film and the franchise as a whole. The film also introduces us to an adult Erik in a series of tightly directed revenge scenes - violent, blackly comic and a confidence lacking in many of the events that follow. And , impressively, Vaughn and co. manage to work in the single best 'fuck' a PG-13 film has ever allowed.

The cast are largely impressive, although with a few notable weakpoints. Fassbender is suitably growly as an angry Magneto, his Irish accent proudly yet awkwardly shining through in a series of third act monologues. McAvoy is surprisingly charismatic, although his upbeat performance lacks depth. Minor characters are good for the most part. Bacon camps it up and while Jennifer Lawerence obviously isn't as impressive as she was in Winter's Bone, she certainly has screen presence. Rose Byrne (playing fan favourite Moira McTaggert) and Oliver Platt are good but underused as CIA agents. The 'minor' mutants are a mixed bunch, though - Banshee, Azazel, Angel, Darwin and others given little of note to do. The obvious weakpoint is January Jones as Emma Frost. It's the exact same performance as her Betty Draper one; where her ice coldness worked in Mad Men, ironically playing a character named Frost shows this act up as one of distressingly limited range.

Mostly positive so far though. Didn't I give out about the film earlier? Yes, and with good cause. There's one crucial element that knocks this film down from something great to something barely above average: the script. The four writers (including Jane Goldman, who seems to get a lot of press coverage based solely on the fact that she's Jonathan Ross' wife, which says a lot about the sad plight of screenwriters) do an absolutely dreadful job in keeping it all together. Yes, everything you've never cared about is explained in great depth, but in a completely incredible way. There are dreadful scenes where characters sit around and discuss the illogical nicknames they're known by. Painfully obvious plot points are rubbed in through cheesy dialogue, overemphasis and poor delivery. It falls into even more obnoxious pratfalls at times - the harsh treatment of the 'token black' characters is borderline offensive.

Other areas are equally mixed. The CGI is dreadful. The character design ranges from good (Azazel) to bad (Beast), and most characters bar the central few are underused. The film ultimately descends into a lazy CGI-fest, lacking the colourful delivery that made other moments stand out. To be honest, it's the kind of film the more I think about the more I find to dislike, and the less I find to defend. The truth is I did enjoy it when I watched it a week ago, but since then the flaws keep popping into my mind over the positives.

It has been suggested (box office dependent) that this is merely the opening act of a new trilogy. Ditching the pointless need to explain every uninteresting detail and instead focusing on telling a silly story in a fun setting while retaining the youthful, talented cast and awesome set designers does show potential. First Class does put the X-Men franchise slightly back on track, but that wasn't hard. What will be hard is crafting something really special out of the foundations laid down here. Hopefully the maps won't be the best part of Second Class.