Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Ant Reviews: Helix Episode 3 '274' (Quickie review)

As a suggestion from a friend of mine, I’ll keep this one brief as it’s good to get my head around shorter reviews. SPOILERS AHEAD

Wow. This episode was great, racking up the tension, suspense and intrigue of the first two episodes significantly.

First of all Ron D. Moore’s fingerprints are all over the show, with all characters harbouring dangerous secrets, messed up interpersonal relationships and tensions between groups of people, with double crosses and secret allegiances. I see a comparison forming between the infected people and the Cylons from BSG and how people will hide that important fact from those who trust them. Also, there are many moments of people as a group panicking and acting stupid.

The tension was upgraded somewhat, with the infected, at later stages of the infection, becoming crazed zombie-like monsters, in the 28 Days Later vein. This is another stylistic homage, as the fast-running infected transfer the infection via the mouth, and pin people down and kiss them with black blood. Match this with the ‘infected monkeys leaping out of science cages to attack people’ thing that happened with the pilot and the links are obvious.

Going back to that, the stand-out moment is when a bunch of panicked people are trapped in a hallway with an infected person. Alan, who deplores violence, is forced to shoot and has to live with the consequences, leading to a great scene of drama (even though he doesn’t reflect openly about his brother/wife situation). Jules, however, has a great scene where she talks to Peter (who’s knocked out) about why she cheated on Alan with him. A good moment.

The intrigues are all working well, and new questions are posed for people we thought would have no secrets at all. Soldier boy seemingly switches sides this ep, so we really don’t know what side he’s on. There’s a great moment at the end when one of the main characters finds out that their test for finding out who’s infected was wrong and uninfected people could be trapped down in quarantine. Good stuff all around this time, I’m glad it picked up quite a bit.

World War Z - Who Ruined This Movie? (The Momus Report)

I wrote about my annoyance regarding this film on my Facebook and my friend Emmet O'Cuana suggested I write a piece for his site The Momus Report. His email response was 'That was impressively even-handed'. The original piece can be found here.

I am not a purist

Or at least I’m trying not to be these days.

After having witnessed the North American reaction to Snyder’s Man Of Steel, the attitude of the ‘purist’ and wanting a production to go ‘your way’ and not the way of the filmmakers is a trend that I have noticed amongst comic book and movie fans alike. People cry about how Superman is rebooted in a way they haven’t seen before, that film's portrayal of him is out of character. The interpretation people seem to want most of all was already done with the Donner/Reeves films. An attempt at imitation of those films lead to Superman Returns; this is 2013, and in an age of remakes and sequels, the best one can hope for is something at least unique and unexpected. We should try and see things for what they are and not decry them for how little they resemble what we want them to be. They are, after all, an interpretation developed by educated and talented people who know more about cinema and movie making than I do. So while I often criticize their choices, sometimes I’d prefer to defer to their better judgement.

Now, I know that this is meant to be a World War Z review. Here I am defending Man of Steel and I have not seen it yet. The reason I mention this ‘I’m better than the filmmaker’ attitude is that my dislike and disappointment with World War Z lies not at the feet of Marc Foster and his team, but with the studio and the audience the studio marketed to.

 My dislike is not so much that I’m a zombie movie purist, as I’ve only seen a handful of zombie movies though I’m also an avid watcher of The Walking Dead. I even wrote and (kind of) directed azombie movie in university, but I’m not as much a stickler for the rules as other fans of the genre are. If it makes sense to the story, go for it. In a sea of similar films, give me something original, or at least something with a hint of originality to it.

So originality is what I thought I’d see in WWZ. As I’m not a zombie purist I wasn’t all that bothered by running zombies, even when they jumped. If the zombies were too slow, they would be able to be stopped in today’s society. A lot of these films deal with the overnight collapse of society, so the faster they are the more effective and believable this loss of infrastructure is. The book is a collection of anecdotal stories; difficult to shoot and turn into a coherent single story. So instead a story focusing on a man and his family was a safer choice.

But then you watch the damn thing. And you realise that the North American cut is the one they’re screening here in Oz. The zombies look like clean, clothed I am Legend monsters; the blood is coloured black/blue or omitted completely. A character accidentally shoots himself dead. The film is edited to the point of confusion. The opening Philadelphia carnage is a shaky camera nightmare, with moments of clear violence edited out. A crowbar is stuck in a zombie’s head while Brad pulls at it; he gets it free just in time to hit a zombie with the digital blood spray omitted.

What makes it worse is that we can tell that the film is meant to be violent, with many visual cues suggesting more graphic scenes. A hand is cut off in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment; a soldier kicks a zombie off a helicopter though his aimed gun suggests something else; an infected soldier shoots himself just out of shot with a cheesy looped line to clarify his intent. The violence in this is like a Bond movie sex scene – all the innuendo and flirting in the lead up suggests sex but all they end up doing is rolling around a bed and smooching, with penetration off-screen and assumed.

I again return to the concept of the purist. Many will cry that this film doesn’t have many of the elements (particularly the gore) that older, more respected films do. The unfortunate truth about WWZ is that there is evidence that its original cut, and the original intent of Forster and co., is probably closer to what the purists wanted.

With all the hullabaloo about WWZ’s disastrous shoot, the studio, nervous about recouping the $200 million it spent on the film, didn’t trust the millions of Walking Dead viewers to come out in force and support the movie so instead softened it for the kiddies.

This is entirely the studio’s prerogative. While I hated the experiences of seeing a kid-friendly hatchet job of a film (at 3D prices, I may add), I blame the C.O.D. playing 9-16yrolds, who for the past decade have become almost the sole consumers of blockbuster cinema. You know, the kind of kids who won’t watch a movie unless at least one character is holding a tricked-out M4 Carbine (which is most films these days.) It’s because of you this film was neutered, and I didn’t see the film Marc Forster intended for me to see. It’s because of you the dream of a big budget zombie movie was ruined and its because of you cinema today has been reduced to something you can handle as opposed to something that I would find entertaining.

Arrow: Potential for Greatness (The Momus Report)

This is another article that I wrote for Emmet O'Cuana's now-closed website the Momus Report. I'm including this one here as I may write a followup to this season 1 article with a season 2 opinion piece sometime in the future. The original can be found here.


So CW announced they’d make a Green Arrow show called Arrow, ditching former televisual GA Justin Hartley from Smallville with Canuck Stephen Amell stepping in as Oliver Queen. The 2010’s are an interesting time for a ‘Robin Hood’ to operate, with the GFC ruining America and reports of people forced to live in tent cities. The gap between middle and upper class is growing, further, dividing the left and right, rich and poor, haves and have-nots. The end result of this tension is what the US media has labelled ‘class warfare’: a fertile starting point for a show regarding a rich man who fights on behalf of the poor. Does the show seize this potential and use it to its advantage?

Yes and no. I recall scenes from Looper that could have been reproduced well here, where homeless people wander the ruined streets while detached rich kids line up outside a nightclub; a fitting context for a show with this subject matter. But this very American ‘class warfare’ isn’t explored as in depth or as compellingly as the topic deserves, but is only tantalizingly hinted at.

And that pretty much sums up the show as a whole, full of awesome moments, compelling scenes (often surrounding Amell, who does an admirable job in the lead role) but it suffers from what I like to call the ‘CW problem’.

The CW television network, named as an amalgamation of CBS and Warner Bros., is known for making thematically unremarkable, unrealistic television with impossibly beautiful people dealing with un-relatable scenarios with laughable, fake dialogue. This easy-to-digest populist programming, much of it appealing to women, consists of shows like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, Smallville, One Tree Hill, etc.

I don’t want to sit and bash the network, nor be someone who rails against the mainstream, because that would be uninteresting. But what I do want to mention is that sometimes this fake mainstream American-TVness of it all, the CW-ness of it all, can be distracting and can inhibit interesting storytelling.

Arrow suffers from this. I don’t mean to be provocative, but I gender this argument because evidence suggests that the show was engineered for a female audience. Take for example the posters for the show. The comic book community can be (sometimes unfairly) associated with heterosexual, homophobic and misogynistic men and teens, so posters of a handsome bare-chested man probably weren’t designed with them in mind [unless they were aiming to score big with the repressed homoeroticism of comics? – emmet].

The show often contains soapy scenes, moments that tend to be associated with shows like Gossip Girl, and feel out of place here. The effects are  jarring. Take for example a flashback where fan-favourite villain Deathstroke ties up Ollie, pulls out a huge-ass knife and tortures him by slashing his skin. This surprising and awesome scene is undercut somewhat as it’s just a set up to allow Katie Cassidy’s Laurel to touch those scars on his manly chest before kissing him, in what amounts to an unrealistic scene. I mean this is a show where a lesson Ollie learns is that one must kill to survive; some of this romance stuff doesn’t fit. I think the producers are pandering to an implied female audience, though I have to say, (despite my limited experience with female genre fans), if you just made a brutal, straightforward vengeance show the female fans would have come regardless.

I think my personal problem with the show lies with Katie Cassidy, in both her approach to her character and the writing. Cassidy’s performance can be forced and false, especially when scowling at Ollie or whenever her lawyer character is in court, though she does have her fleeting moments of charm. Another annoying element: Ollie was having an affair with her sister, then took her on the cruise that killed her, ruining her and her father’s life and she STILL wants to smooch him all things considered.  Her character isn’t the most flattering nor the easiest to support in this regard. Comic book and seasoned TV viewers can tell they’ll end up together eventually, but please, wait until a later season at least before they kiss each other. Let him date the Huntress a little bit (which I think he will soon anyway), and let them work their way around to each other.

So I’m hoping the show can sever some of these more boring romantic teen girl romance subplots in favour of action, intrigue and stronger social commentary. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind some romance on my TV (I can’t imagine watching Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom without it) but there are less clichéd ways going about it that can be engaging. I’m hoping that things change a lot in future, and that a) Ollie’s beard gets longer, b) he loses all his money (like in the 70s) and that the show focuses more on those elements. But in all it’s still an enjoyable show, the good scenes make up for the disappointing ones, so perhaps they can only strip back and get meaner.

Green Arrow: A History On and Off The Screen (The Momus Report)

Hey guys, I learnt recently that the site The Momus Report was closing for 2014, so I thought I'd share some essays that I wrote for the site's editor Emmet O'Cuana. The original essays were found here.

In honour of the current version of the Green Arrow character presently being personified on the small screen by Stephen Amell, let’s take a look back at Ollie Queen’s history on and off screen, and see how much his various interpretations have changed over the years. 

 To start, we need to look at who Green Arrow used to be. Created in 1940 by Mort Weisinger and George Papp, GA was a rich kid with rich kid toys, complete with a costume (that then included red elements), Arrow themed gear (Arrow-Car, Arrow-Plane, Arrow-Cave) and a plucky sidekick in Speedy; it was obvious that he was a mirror image of Batman.

Entering the 70s Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams changed his costume and added a goatee. Oliver Queen had lost all of his wealth and embodied an edgier version of Robin Hood, a leftist who loudly and vocally fought all of society’s ills. With failing sales of Green Lantern, DC Editor Julius Scwartz brought in O’Neil and Adams, who paired Queen with Hal Jordan. Jordan acted as the conservative representative of authority and government in opposition to Queen’s liberal social-change advocacy. It was also during this time that his most controversial and famous story came about; when his former partner Speedy was revealed to be a heroin addict. 

The 80s saw Mike Grell take over, placing Ollie into a hard-boiled environment, removing his trademark trick arrows and allowing him to take lives. This period also saw a revision of his origin, suggesting Queen used the thrill of vigilantism to rebel against his upper class upbringing. It was also this period which replaced his feathered cap with the - now preferred - iconic hood.

The 90s were a time for replacement heroes, with Queen dying in 1995 whilst taking on terrorists. His illegitimate son Connor Hawk took over the mantle, as was Jordan’s having gone mad and being replaced by freelance artist Kyle Rayner. DC it turn would subsequently dumped all the good work made with these interesting characters when the originals returned. Kevin Smith resurrected Queen in 2000 and Geoff Johns ‘rebirthed’ Hal Jordan in 2004.

Of these various stages in GA’s long life, you’ll find that he’s mostly represented in two ways, as a high-flying Batman rip-off, or as an outspoken leftist figure, keeping people in line.

The closest Golden Age representation of Green Arrow is in Batman: The Brave and the Bold’s representation, voiced by James Arnold Taylor. Wearing a costume straight from the Golden Age this GA comes complete with all the Arrow themed vehicles.  His similarity to Batman isn’t ignored as he and Batman have an open and friendly rivalry, racing their vehicles against each other and often comparing their crime-fighting proficiency.  I group Justin Hartley’s Green Arrow from Smallville in this first interpretation of GA as his rich-boy version stood in lieu of a Bruce Wayne in the show; Warner Bros refused to let them use Batman due to the Nolan films coming out.

The other version of Green Arrow, the O’Neil/Adams’ social activist figure, is present in Justice League Unlimited. This version was brought into the team to keep the big characters honest; a self proclaimed ‘old lefty’, the character pulled no punches and threw down with the best of them. Kin Shriner voiced him in the series (and reportedly dressed as Green Arrow for the recordings), and filled him with a loud brashness and sarcasm that was later mirrored in Chris Hardwick’s interpretation of GA in The Batman, as well as in the trailer for the upcoming game Injustice: Gods Among Us.

That brings us to Stephen Amell’s version, who actually has more in common with Mike Grell’s gritty 80s version than the others. Aside from the trademark hood, Amell’s Arrow kills some of his opponents like Grell’s GA, and deals with non-powered villains. Indeed, the modus operandi ofArrow is a superhero show without super-powers, reflecting Grell’s insistence that no superheroes make an appearance in his book: If Hal Jordan did show up, he’d be out of costume and using his real name. Grell also refused to call Green Arrow by his costumed identity, and the show has followed suit thus far. This makes him more of a Robin Hood character as opposed to just a straight superhero interpretation.

Some of the older elements still remain however, with Queen still retaining his vast wealth, his desire to tackle social problems at a higher, corporate level. Though this may soon change as his friend and confidant Diggle wants him to tackle smaller crime as opposed to just the higher-ups, it’s a promising sign that the creators of the show have acknowledged elements from across Green Arrow’s vast history to create something that incorporates all his many facets.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Ant Reviews: Helix (Double Episode Pilot, 2014)

There are some TV shows out there that you wish were simply miniseries instead. By the end of the pilot you question whether or not a show of that kind, with the narrative they have established, could sustain the typical US network series length of around twenty two episodes before it gets super boring and stale. Helix is one of those shows.

Helix, produced by Battlestar Galactica’s Ron D. Moore, tells the story of Alan, (Billy Campbell) a CDC genius virologist who travels to a remote research base to investigate an outbreak in the Arctic with his team, with his assistant Sarah (Jordan Hayes), his ex-wife Jules (Kyra Zagorsky), a sassy biologist (Catherine Lemieux) and a (seemingly) boring army mechanic (Mark Ghanime). At the base he runs into Captain Kaneda/Shingen Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanada) who runs the base as well as his estranged brother Peter (Neil Napier) who is one of the first infected with the mysterious and deadly disease.

The show is in the genre of horror and sci fi, and handles these science fiction elements well. It visually draws its visuals and ideas from things like Resident Evil, The Thing, Fringe and Alien (and if Campbell kept his beard he’s look like Captain Dallas). There’s something refreshing about a cast made up of trained professionals, 90% of which are doctors and leaders in their field. The base itself is outside the scientific regulations of most countries and the multinational group of scientists can play around with the laws of nature to their heart's content. And of course there’s all kinds of secret corporate travesties hiding in secret labs waiting to be unleashed. It’s an interesting starting point for science fiction shenanigans.

There is a wonderful freakiness conceit that I like, where they play pleasant elevator music while something messed up is going on visually. It’s my wish that the freakiness, the violence and the depravity be accelerated ten fold (within the bounds of network television) so that the juxtaposition can be that much stronger, but perhaps that opinion is based on my love of American Horror Story and how amazing that show looks and how well they use music there.

I apprecitate this stylistic conceit as it speaks to a certain attitude of the creators whilst also helping to establish a greater sense of location to proceedings. The vibe they’re trying to establish is one of normality and calm in the face of horror, which speaks to the attitude of the people who work at the base (Peter included) who have to soldier on despite what they know is really going on.

While I applaud those choices I cannot say the same for the visual representation of the base. It should be, for all intents and purposes, another character of the show, and should be very distinctive in its form and function. The outside of the base looks interesting, what looks to be a buried radar-dish-looking structure. There is a central elevator that we see, the window of which gives a sense of the size and depth of the structure, and there is this one hallway that has occasional wood panelling. But that's about it. 

The rest is all hallways and labs, shot in a blue filter. Labs look like labs look like labs, and hallways and air-ducts look like hallways and air-ducts. As they are underground for a majority of it the geography of the base is difficult to map out in one’s head, making the base seem much less visually distinctive as it should be. There is also a theme of escape that's present in the narrative and the base and location simply don't seem that inescapable or claustrophobic as it should be. 

The characters aren’t given much to make them seem distinctive either. Like with most modern genre shows there are typical conflicts and mysteries set up with everyone involved, but the characters do very little to act on those feelings within the framework of these first two episodes.

 For example, the lead Alan has to deal with his ex-wife, who became his ex-wife after she was caught sleeping with his brother. He’s become estranged from both it seems up until this mission, but you wouldn’t believe it if you saw it. The decision to act should have been far harder a choice for him, as should be the decision to put aside his baggage and care for his brother. On the surface it seems everything is ok with him, really, which doesn’t feel natural.

His ex-wife should have been drawn a certain way, more impulsive and young and brash, his brother should have been portrayed as someone who is competitive and a real arsehole. It takes a certain kind of prick to fuck his brother’s wife, and on the show Napier’s character looks like someone’s dad (though thats not the case on his IMDB). It seems like we should all question whether or not he’s worth saving from Alan’s POV, which would give weight to his decision to help, but their relationship is under written. They set up potential there for some heavy drama and family conflict but with these first two episodes there’s not much.

And because Allen used to be the Rocketeer, his lab assistant of course is in love with him secretly. I wouldn’t blame her. However, it is annoying to have young female characters solely motivated by love or a crush. Its clichéd and should stop. There needs to be more female characters who participate for their own reasons, not because a man is involved. Speaking of clichés, Campbell’s character is a bit of a globetrotting older wiser heroic adventurer type, though its understated. Shit, at least he isn’t like Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character in The Burning Zone, who was a rock and roll Cadillac driving virologist. Hey, it was the 90s.

Going back to what I said at the beginning, I wish this show is more of a mini series and not a whole series: there are indications that there are only so many places they can go with it. With these first two episodes we have two incidences of infected people escaping, two instances of an Aliens-esque air-duct crawl around. And while I will admit that I like the show better than most, the potential for a monster-of-the-week format with the horrors hidden in the base dosen’t sit well with me, unless all episodes deal with viruses, then it would take some heavy duty writing to keep it fresh. They'll also need to tease out some of that emotional truth in the characters and do so honestly to keep me around. So we’ll see where it goes.


Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Ant Reviews: Intelligence (TV Pilot, 2014)

I’ve never been much of a devotee of Lost, though I did watch the first season when it was on television. One character that was memorable was Josh Holloway’s Sawyer, pretty much the TV equivalent of X-men’s Gambit – a charming, handsome arsehole hiding dark personal secrets. Holloway was destined for great things (actually turning down the role of Gambit in an X-men movie because it was too close to Sawyer, go figure) but never got far, save for a few welcome appearances in movies like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. He holds a special place in my heart for being one of the first vampires to be seen and killed in Angel (his second on-screen role), so I’ve always wanted to see him do well.

And here he is in new TV show Intelligence. The story centres around Holloway’s Gabriel, a spy with a high-tech chip in his head, making him a hot spy commodity. To protect him, his boss Lillian (Marg Helgenberger) appoints young Secret Service agent Riley (Meghan Ory) to protect him. I’ll avoid the puns regarding intelligence and lack thereof. The biggest criticism to be made is simply that it’s a TV show. It’s very much a TV show.

Rather redundant to point out, I know. But the pilot is rather aggressive in its mainstream genre TV mediocrity.  The characters don’t pop, the settings are bland (save for one set-piece involving a shootout in a paintball room, which added some much needed colour). The dialogue is stilted and unrealistic, the performances underwhelming and the plot predictable. The word ‘safe’ springs to mind.

Gone is the Holloway charm. Characters are reduced to caricatures (geeky, wisecracking nerd anybody? Tough but fair boss?) and the romantic tension/friendly rivalry between Holloway and Ory is both boring in its execution as it is chemistry-free. The whole thing is frustratingly pedestrian and again, ‘safe’.

The whole thing could do with an injection of tongue-in-cheek fun. If the characters are to be caricatures, at least paint them with broader, more colourful strokes. Let Holloway do what he does best, let him be a lovable rogue, occasionally sleazy but sexy and mysterious. Play up the fact that a pretty brunette is body-guarding a tall surely superspy, perhaps cast someone who looks less capable as juxtaposition to her actual ability. Spice up the dialogue, sprinkle it with self-awareness; doing so will remind the audience that ‘hey, nothing here is original but we’re having fun anyway’.

What’s even more frustrating is how Intelligence is all very obviously shot in Canada. From the faking of snowy Canadian mountains for Pakistan in the pre-titles sequence, to the abandoned warehouse that I recognise from not only Stargate SG1 but Fringe as well, the whole thing reeks of corner-cutting and low budgets, which is not what you expect from a pilot.

That leads to the one successful thing of the show: the chip. The chip allows Gabriel to hack the Internet and various communications with the power of his mind. The conceit allows him to combine all available evidence to create a virtual recreation of a crime scene that he can walk through. This is used to good effect at the beginning when he relives his wife’s supposed defection to a terrorist organization and her participation in a massacre. Moments like identifying a terrorist as his wife by having a wedding video in a little window playing next to her face as she guns down civilians is a novel way of displaying background information to the audience. They’re also very beautifully rendered, so I guess we now know where the budget went.

The show runs the risk of this being too much like BBC’s Sherlock, what with available information on screen for both the character and the audience to observe, and with Gabriel being a super know-it-all in every situation because of his brain, they’d need to work very hard to not draw comparisons to that superior product. The show is already too much like a combination of Chuck and Person of Interest, it would serve them not to imitate further. 

So the show has much potential, if it had a ground-up redo of everything from characters, acting, dialogue and plot. While I do like the central conceit of the show there isn’t much for me to keep watching. Many recent mainstream genre pilots do very little to challenge audiences and do something interesting. Not all shows have the leeway of cable shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, sure, but many shows have created great work in a mainstream context, for example, Joss Whedon’s oeuvre.

Ultimately there is very little here to justify my continued viewing. Much like the pilots of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Almost Human and Sleepy Hollow (the most fun of the three), the conventions of mainstream genre TV have changed so little since the 90s, where such conventions are so easily identified that the whole thing feels monotonous. What you’re left with is shows that will either get cancelled in no time or will drone on with nothing interesting to say for a few years before vanishing, either way they’re not worth your time. I mean, Almost Human has Karl Urban in it and I still wont watch it. It’s a tragedy when shows that have something to say get cancelled (like recently with the amazing show Boss with Kelsey Grammar) but if Intelligence goes the reasons why are right there on the screen.