Sunday, 25 July 2010
Alternate Title: "About Bloody Time".
Cigarette intake since viewing: ≤4.
Currently listening to: "Ride of the Valkryies" by Richard Wagner.
The Gist: The Predator franchise justifies its continued existence.
The Experience: As I briefly mentioned in my Evangelion review last week, reinventing a franchise is a tricky business on its own. Reinventing one that only has one really good entry in it in the first place, was started over 20 years ago and has been sinking lower and lower with each entry ever since is just asking for trouble of the "stomped to death by angry nerds" variety.
So watching Predators was a strange feeling, and one that doesn't come too often with sequels/remakes/reboots: vindication. The Predator films have long been the butt of unimaginative jokes about hypermasculine men carrying half a helicopter gunship on their backs and that the Predator's face looks like a snarling toothed vagina. Finally, though, we're getting the Predator sequel that we deserve.
The setup, as in the original, is deliciously simple: a bunch of hard-cases are dropped into the jungle, realise they're being hunted and have to escape. This time, however, these aren't Special Forces soldiers on a mission, but a motley crew of misfit mercenaries, murderers and malcontents (try saying that when you're drunk) who've been kidnapped specifically as prey for the eponymous Predators, and the jungle is in fact an alien game preserve on an unknown planet.
The plot never gets much more complex than that, but to be honest it's actually refreshing; previous films have stretched the stories' limited coherence to breaking point by trying to link the Predator race not just to the xenomorphs from Alien but to human crypto-history as well. No such bullshit here, as the majority of the film is instead spent on gore gags, geek-out moments and character beats. A more critical audience member might call this a weakness, but here it is a boon to the solid cast and direction. The characters are cartoonish but well drawn. Its structure is nostalgic of the previous movies without becoming rote or obvious. This film may actually be the finest cases of fan-fiction filmmaking the like of which never really accomodated in Hollywood before.
Which brings me neatly to the subject of Robert Rodriguez. For a while Rodriguez was king of his own little film-making fort, this generation's John Carpenter making his fun little jaunts into everything from horror to kids films. And while he's never really stopped doing that, Sin City shot him into the public eye and his last high profile gig Grindhouse hit cinemas to loud trumpets while the American audience simply looked baffled, as if they'd just witnessed a Brazillian transexual doing something unholy with a wine bottle and a soldering iron. For the past couple of years he's been floating around several big projects, seemingly hoping that he will come back into vogue and get another stab at the mainstream, and Predators seems to be it.
Originally a spec he conceived in the nineties, what would eventually become Predators seemed on paper to be a case of stealthily ghost-directing a piece that would endear him to the notoriously clueless execs at Fox. However, not only does Predators play against type by not being terrible, it also lacks the tell-tale signs of a movie that has been micro-managed into mediocrity by either a fidgety producer or studio focus groups. Return of the Jedi this isn't.
Its criminal that I'm this far into the review without highlighting the brilliant acting talents of Adrien Brody and Alice Braga as the primary characters, or Topher Grace, Walton Goggins or Laurence Fishburne in supporting roles, but the even bigger stars of the show are Brian Steele, Carey Jones and Derek Mears as the Predators themselves. If you loved the first, then this is a must.
I drank the Kool-Aid. Some should you. Right now!
Sunday, 18 July 2010
Alternate Title: "WTF: The Remake".
Cigarette intake since viewing: ≤4.
Currently listening to: "My Iron Lung" by Radiohead.
The Gist: Teens in mechs beat the crap out of aliens, have personality issues and listen to too much Radiohead.
The Experience: Steak is good, but man cannot live on steak alone. In life, as in art, its rare enough getting a really nice juicy one, without the chef coming back ten or more years later, saying “Hey, remember that great steak I cooked you years ago?”, then presenting you with another from the same cow, who by now would be either a rotting corpse or else very angry at him for cutting big chunks of meat out of him.
So it is with an understandable mix of potent nostalgia and mortal dread that I approached this, my review of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, a cinema remake of a Japanese cartoon from the mid-Nineties. That statement alone is going to breed a bit of nervousness among the faithful and ignorant alike, and I admit that as a fan I was concerned both regarding its integrity to the original show and my own ability to remain objective: when all my classmates were listening to Linkin Park and watching Dragonball Z, I was listening to Pink Floyd and watching Evangelion. But since a live-action version is languishing in development hell where it likely belongs, it’s nice to see the previous taskmaster Hideaki Anno giving the old girl a spin in a post-CGI world.
For those who haven’t heard of the show or don’t know what it’s about, I would usually start by saying “shame on you!” but in the interest of letting the film stand on its own merits here’s the summary: it’s half past the future, the world is still in a state of recovery from a disaster known as Second Impact (think climate change, Hurricane Katrina and 2012 all in one go), and the city of Tokyo 3 (guess what happened to the other two) is being attacked by the Angels, a race of unearthly behemoths who seem to have all graduated from Monster Island Academy a couple of decades behind Godzilla and Mothra, who are intent on bringing about the end of humanity for… some reason. The Angels don’t exactly rate as the most chatty antagonists.
The only thing standing in the way of this happening is the titular Evangelion Unit 01, a bio-mechanical suit of powered armour which occasionally has a mind of its own, which is piloted by Shinji Ikari, typical teenager by day, agent of NERV and whiny bitch every other waking hour. Aiding and abetting him are fellow pilot Rei Aiyanami, a seemingly autistic albino girl, Misato Katsuragi, his sassy commanding officer/flatmate, and his stern emotionally dead father/boss, Gendo Ikari.
If that premise seems simple enough, guess again, because as with the show that predicated it, hidden agendas run thick and fast throughout the film, be it from the personal level with Gendo’s callous manipulation of his own son, to the broader scope of the Angels’ attacks, the Evas’ true function and their mysterious backers SEELE. Weirdly enough, most of the momentum in the film comes not from the threat of any alien menace, although the movie does have its fair share of action sequences. Instead it finds most of its conflict in Shinji’s struggle to stop being such a pussy and stand up for himself.
I should not like a protagonist like Shinji as much as I do, because for a start he manages to go most of 90 minutes (even longer than that in the show) umming and ahhing about whether he can do his job and still be happy, which should really be a no-brainer, and still doesn’t seem to have an answer at the end. Between his abandonment issues, (mom’s dead, dad’s a stone-hearted workaholic prick,) his stunted relationship with the opposite sex, (he’s been voiced by the same guy since the early 2000s and his balls still haven’t seemed to drop,) and the fact that he gets floored by a single punch twice in a row by the Japanese equivalent of a Scouse chav, Shinji cuts a pretty unimposing figure as a hero.
However, whilst the show dragged the character development out to the point where the fight scenes seemed to be done on sufferance, the film allows for a much better balancing act. Add on 10 years of advances in the animation field, a tighter script and an attitude of not trying to reinvent the wheel but refine it, and You Are (Not) Alone does deliver on its desire to relight the franchise’s fire.
This brings us rather neatly to you, the audience. Yes, you. The person reading this. If you’ve gone the past fourteen years ignorant of Neon Genesis Envangelion (the show’s original, more pretentious title), you may find it hard to understand why you should care now. The short answer is to not be such a twat, but the long answer is that it has taken that long for the quality of the finish product to match the creators’ initial ambitions.
Those ambitions seem to be to redux (or Rebuild, as they call it) the saga in a way that is both true to the spirit of the original but still accessible to today’s audience, and I for one think that’s not such a bad idea. Whilst NGE and its previous spin-off movies Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion are close to my heart, they were part of what I’d describe as George Lucas syndrome: not being able to stop tinkering with something that was fine in the first place.
The problem was not that the show or the films were bad; the problem was that due to the studio politics of the time, Anno never quite got to have the last word on the project. When his sponsors weren’t pulling out over some of the (admittedly mind-boggling) Freudian content of the latter part of the series, the fans were crying out for more robot fighting as only fanboys do: by sending death threats. End of Eva was meant to be the “proper” conclusion the series’ end, but after the frankly underwhelming Director’s Cut DVDs we seemed to be no closer to understanding the show. Or why Hideaki Anno hasn’t been committed to an asylum.
You could be forgiven for taking this long and rambling review as a recommendation to old fans and newcomers alike, but the fact is there are still a lot of tricks up Anno’s sleeve; not only has the animation been improved but there are some little surprises in there that only someone who got completely submerged in the show would pick up on. I for one think that is a good thing, but the whole leper-status of remakes in general will probably make old fans chafe and the just plain weirdness of it will no doubt put off the people just looking to see robots fighting other robots.
But if you’ve gotten all the way through this blog just to find out whether on or not you should see this film, as the man said to the lemming, it’s your funeral.
I drank the Kool-Aid, and so should you.