Logan: Breaking the Superhero Wheel

I arrived in the door five minutes ago after seeing Logan. Before I took off my coat, before I set down my keys, I ran to my laptop and pressed hard on the power button. I didn’t want to let myself not write this blog.

Now, for those who frequent this small corner of the internet often, you’ll know me for my love of fantasy. All the same, the genre has run parallel to the superhero film since the early 2000s, making fans of one essentially fans of the other. And after a decade of what I always considered “Post Dark Knight angst”, it seems superhero films are finally set to become grounded in something substantial again. Something worth buying a ticket for.

When Deadpool stole our hearts last year with its shoot-from-the-hip, salacious style, the fifth gear the superhero movie was cruise controlling in started to wobble. It’s been long overdue of course. Quite frankly, I can’t sit through another ten years (in which time I could be helping to bring children into the world) of watered-down, emotionally empty films where an ever-expanding motley crew chase after aliens with their pew-pew guns and make “off-the-cuff” jokes because hey, killing bad guys is super chill, amirite?

I have sat through the Avenger movies, and the Spiderman reboots and the myriad of other characters Marvel are packaging into solo films so fast we honestly can’t remember their names. I blink and Marvel births six Thor movies. I go to the bathroom and Captain America lands himself another sequel. The wheel had to stop turning. The wheel had to be broken.

So it came as little surprise really that it fell to Hugh Jackman and Wolverine to haul us all out of the complacent coma we’d allowed ourselves sink into. Logan, an X-men spinoff I could honestly see on a Best Picture list, shook me from the word go and didn’t let me rest until the credits rolled up and the lights came on for a stunned audience. With its unapologetic level of violence, you could be excused for thinking this was just another body-count movie, a comfortable 120 minutes of nada. Instead, Logan managed to unearth more deep-rooted emotion than any superhero movie has ever dug for, let alone found.

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Hugh Jackman, delivering a performance that will surely rank as one his more memorable, brought out the vulnerability of the Wolverine character as though it was the one side of him he was destined to portray. Patrick Stewart, on the other hand, reprising his role as Professor X, delivered a side of the character we perhaps weren’t expecting. Here Professor X had more bite, less art, a reflection of the later years of a man working his entire life for those around him. But perhaps both will admit they acted in the shadow of Dafne Keen, a young actress who brought to life a whole new character in her first flurry on the big screen. Rather than succumb to what I call “Carrrrll”, where young actors essentially get in the way of any meaningful plot, Keen drove the story forward, standing as tall as her co-stars by the time the 141 minutes adrenaline rush had collapsed over the finish line.

Fans of both the comic books and previous films will find plenty to play with, and such is the nuance of many of the scenes, even those who would normally gloss over a superhero blockbuster will pause in the quieter moments of the film and reflect on what a genre such as this can achieve when handled with such care.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for this viewer was to see how wide-eyed political the film turned out. Essentially a movie about innocent, predominantly Black/Hispanic pre-teens running from the U.S. government towards the “You’re-welcome-here, ey” Canadian border, Logan managed to stick a middle finger up to the Trump administration somewhere in the throes of its action. And by God did the movie deliver on that front. Refusing to shy away from blood, death, sickness, Logan‘s punch-by-punch action shots dove at you two claws extended, impaling you with a message that characters here aren’t oh-so-safe as we have come to expect from the Marvel production line.

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All in all, this movie will be remembered as the best X-Men had to offer, perhaps even the best the genre has given us too.

Because in a state-of-play where Marvel are happy to knock you over the head for two hours with clichéd plots and woeful dialogue, Logan is as raw as we’ve ever had it.

This was two and a bit hours of primal Hugh Jackman screaming at Hollywood, at viewers, at the genre and at the world.

And by fuck do I hope we’re listening.

The road goes ever on and on-Things I liked about the last Hobbit film [SPOILERS]

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I’ve waited until now to make my judgement on the last Hobbit film (well, at least the written version of it). Overall, it wasn’t particularly easy. I liked the first Hobbit film, and I disliked the second one. The third movie, called “The Battle of the five armies” was kind of like a mix of the two. So, to keep this short….er, and to make it easy for myself, I’m gonna tackle the good things in this post, and then we’ll look at what went wrong after.

1. The acting

Some moments of the Hobbit films have been guilty of the worst acting in the entire Middle Earth franchise. Mostly this has been down to a bad script, and a lot of the rest of it is either poor casting choices (Billy Connolly? Stephen Fry??) or working the plot wrong. Even so, it’s actually been overwhelmingly positive. In the battle of the five armies (BOTFA), Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) give their usual five star performances, and it’s safe to say there will NEVER be another Gandalf quite like Ian.

Richard Armitage performs consistently as the dark and vengeful Thorin Oakenshield, who spends most of the movie lusting after the Arkenstone (or king’s jewel). Aidan Turner (Kili) and Ken Stott (Balin) play their respective role as dwarves in the company very well, and are given lots of screen time in this installment. Aidan Turner in particular has went from strength to strength with each movie, and he even somehow manages to improve on the overall feel of the elf/dwarf romance that is Tauriel and Kili. Himself and Richard Armitage stand out in the action scenes, with Graham McTavish (Dwalin) also good in this respect.

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I think one of the most memorable performances in the franchise is given by Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman, who is blessed with the liberty of far more to do than his paperback compatriot. His nemesis Smaug, who is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, is also wonderfully portrayed, which brings me to my next point…

2. That first 40 or so minutes

It wasn’t until the second watch that I truly appreciated it, but the first half an hour/forty minutes of this film is actually well up there as a contender for the best portion of the trilogy, and even has a Lord of the Rings kinda flavour to it that has been so glaringly missing from these three movies.

There are many bad ways to start a film (or end it a la Desolation of Smaug), but BOTFA has to be an example of how to do the exact opposite. It opens with the imminent attack of Smaug on Laketown, which (and I rarely say this) is VISUALLY AMAZING. That’s right. These scenes was so well done that I couldn’t help but notice. The sequence is a bit marred by Stephen Fry, but other than that it is perfectly constructed. The interplay between Smaug and Bard gives the dragon the hubristic tone seen widely in the novel, and though in large sections of the trilogy the heroes seem impervious to danger, with these scenes there really is a constant threat raging amid the dragon fire. After the death of Smaug, we get a fitting introduction to Thorin’s lust and greed, and then it is off to Dol Guldur where in the second movie we saw Gandalf captured by the now revealed Sauron. The sudden arrival of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) sets up what is uncharted-but-touched-on territory in Tolkien’s work, with the concept of the White Council banishing Sauron being very real, but the execution of the scene obviously fabricated by Jackson et al. It turns out quite well on screen, outside of the epileptic inducing Sauron that has become a stereotype of this trilogy.

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3. location, location, location

It normally goes without saying that Middle Earth is beautifully represented by the New Zealand landscape, but hell, I’m gonna say it anyway. It is noticeable that there is far more CGI work in the landscape, yet even so, the city of Dale has an Osgiliath ruins-like feel to it, while Erebor itself is one of most vividly created parts of all six movies. Gundabad has a nice Cirith Ungol look to it, which for many LOTR fans was one of the best settings in the original films.  Dol Guldur is unique as compared to some of the other locations, and its effect is mirrored onto Mirkwood well to show the spread of Sauron’s sickness.

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4. Some of the action scenes

Although as a movie, there is way too much of a reliance on CGI, some of the action scenes do still have that LOTR effect. In particular Tauriel’s scene on Ravenhill was well constructed, and Thorin vs Azog on the sheet of ice was a great way to lead up to the finish. I think the most obvious reason the look of the battles (as well as their credibility) has improved is that Jackson cannot escape the ending of the book. It is inevitable that Kili, Fili and Thorin had to die, and so in the latter part of the movie there was more of a desperate feel in the battles with Azog and Bolg. Bard’s fight scenes alongside the other men of Laketown were reasonably well done, so that in the end they were not dissimilar from the Siege of Gondor fights in Return of the King. It was the “setup” parts of most battles that stood out, but once the armies engaged it was a little hard to keep track. Still, the battles hugely improved on Desolation of Smaug.

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5. The ending

The first time I watched this movie, I was really unhappy with the ending. I know people go on and on about the last LOTR film dragging on, but this ending felt like a purposeful attempt to do the opposite. The second time, it still is obvious the ending could use work. The resolution after Thorin’s death is far too quick, and much of the cast is just kind of rushed off screen. There is no real finishing of the Bard, Thranduil or Dain storyline. Saying all that, I think Bilbo and Thorin’s last scene was really well done, as was Gandalf’s goodbye to Bilbo. Including the auction when Bilbo arrived home was a definite boost for the “there and back” theme of the whole thing. The final scene, which is one of the opening scenes of the Fellowship of the Ring looked at from within Bilbo’s house, was a touching (albeit slightly cheesy) note to end on. It was not a bad way to end it, and they did provide the link between the trilogies they wanted.

Next time, I’ll look at all the bad things, which is likely gonna be a much longer blog with far less structure. Until then.

Chewsday-August 26th-The Debunking Edition

Nice to put a spin on old concepts, so this week I’ll take a break from the facts and hit on some common misconceptions. Below are two that spring to mind as I write

1. Humans only use ten per cent of their brain

How this made it into mainstream thought at large, I do not know. I’m not here to go research on why people are wrong, just here to tell them that they are. At any one time, it is true that humans only use certain parts of their brain. This is perfectly fine. Our brains are divided up into lobes each of which has areas generally connected to certain functions, senses etc. Therefore, when going about your day-to-day life, your brain (the part we commonly consider the brain is the cerebral cortex) combines relevant areas with more primitive nerve tissue in the brainstem and the lower central nervous system, and as a result we have movement, sensation and so forth. The new movie Lucy and Limitless before that both touch on this subject and aim to show that pharmaceuticals could somehow enhance that and allow for all areas of the brain, or “hidden areas” if we really want to get the fake science out here, could be accessed, thus improving our ability to be charming like Bradley Cooper or be a role model like Scarlett Johannson.

Of course, under no circumstances would it be even feasible to be activating large areas of the brain to carry out most of the body’s function. Even higher thought and emotion have defined pathways and can be approximated to certain areas, showing that even our newly acquired functions (and when I say new that is obviously relative) don’t need us to turn on all the lights in the proverbial house at the same time. Activating large parts of the brain’s electrochemical circuitry does remind me of one REAL life phenomenon. We call it epilepsy, and it isn’t Bradley Cooper.

If people are really so fascinated as to “access those hidden areas”, then I’m sorry to say you’ll be disappointed. You can, however, make great use of what is there, and tweak it for your desires. Things like muscle memory, priming, conditioning and memory retrieval are all real life possibilities, and can have their proof traced to exact neural pathways. Using drugs to modulate the electrochemical side of the brain is as real as Chewsdays, but expanding that to say we could find a drug that could harmonise the entire central nervous system into performing not only in perfect tandem with other parts but also at some advanced level without basically killing you from the contradictory effects is only a dream, I’m afraid.

2. Loads of people out there just have “natural” or “inherited” intelligence

Nothing is worth shaming more than hearing “they get it all from their father” or “And their mother is a doctor”. Granted, as with almost everything based on proteins, intelligence does have some link back to our genes. Some research shows a figure of 50%. No, it doesn’t mean that half your intelligence is from your parents, but it does mean is that half of the differences in people’s intelligence could be genetically related. That being said, you have to wonder when we have this solid figure to work with, why is it we overlook the other portion so much, especially since it’s the only one we have any effect over. Of course, I’m talking about environment. Environment ranges from your relationship with your parents, to how your school runs, to well..the actual environment, Basically, if you know it’s not mapped out in the genetic code, it’s environment. In the modern world, we strive to find peculiarities. We aim to look for odd things, or things that don’t fit the norm. That is why the media and society as as whole is constantly obsessed with the concept of a genius. A genius, if played correctly by the media, can be a shining example that somewhere back the line the ole’ intelligence gene (actually had to write that term) fell into place. After that point, no matter what circumstances a child grows up in, they are destined for greatness.

Sound familiar. Well, plausibly, it can happen. Depending on which area of intelligence an inherited factor could pertain to, it is conceivable a person could show up on our radars if they followed the right path. From a biological point of view, however, the figures don’t add up. With only very small fractions of people having an IQ of even >130 (so ya know, take it easy with the amount of 170s out there), it is far more likely any perceived intelligence is based in environment and not in genetics. I once read a quote on cancer causing genes that went like “genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger”. Perhaps it is poignant here also. After all, even with an inherited level of genius, things have to fall into place during childhood for this to emerge. The “naturally smart” quip fails to explain how people far down the dubious IQ ladder can outperform their counterparts higher up in social, academic, emotional or business settings in any shape or form. Commitment to education or determination in training easily outweighs most of the genetic abnormalities of intelligence people could be born with. And both these concepts are the roots of environment.

 

 

World War Z without Brad Pitt

It’s very rare in the modern day to be able to read a book, watch it’s film adaptation, and still find no faults between them. Very rare. But here, after ploughing through an entire series of The Walking Dead books, the faults of which I outlined before both as a novel and as an on-screen version, I found a winner.

The above is actually incorrect, that is, in phrasing of course. I’d actually seen Max Brooks’ novel in the film version six months ago, long before Waterstones got paid a holiday visit from Kyle and his gift card. So when a quick google search informed me the movie and book were pretty much different in all but name, I wasn’t sure what I had got myself into.

The film World War Z stars Brad Pitt, who in the midst of a zombie pandemic finds himself shuffled into the deck of the world’s rescue team, which also features a globally renowned expert in viruses et al as well as the standard motley crew of army companions. Their mission is to go deep behind the enemy lines, to find patient zero and investigate how the infection operates. The journey takes them across countries which overall does try to encompass excerpts from the novel in as dramatic a fashion as possible. The portrayal of Israel is a good example that readers of the book could find a good parallel in. After that though, the similarities dwindle out. Most of the latter part of the movie centres on a World Health Organisation facility, where a plan for a cure begins to unravel. The climax is tense and overall as a narrative the movie successfully breaks into the ranks of respectable zombie films. This review will tend to focus more on the book though, as that’s probably where the real credit should go.

The most observable difference seen in the first few pages of the book on comparison to the film is the existence of the slow-type zombie rather than the fast-moving monster that is rampant in Brad Pitt’s world. Other than that readers would be surprised to see the book actually comprises a series of interviews, each skipping to different parts of the world and effectively examining the fallout of the “war” for people of all manner of class, gender, economic background and professional status. Even I thought this wasn’t going to work, with the skill needed to write a convincing novel made up only of interviews very hard to come by. But to Brooks’ credit, he whisks you right into the story from the beginning. The interviewer only intervenes to a point, giving the book room to flow, and so the pace isn’t hurt at all as mostly those being questioned are left free to describe first-hand what occurred to them during the apocalypse. However, if this was the only feature alone that Brooks employed, I’d leave the book thinking it was a solid shot at trying to convince the reader this had actually happened. What’s scary more than impressive, is that the author goes much, much further.

What’s immediately evident is the writer sticks to a set time pattern, with the novel’s early interviews revolving around the breakout of the virus, progressing eventually through survivor stories and the resulting fight back by the humans remaining.

The first twenty pages are an eerie look at just how terrifying it would be to come upon what seem like gruesome murders or abstract infections, the tone set by those interviewed (which of course the author controls) that all authority were completely incompetent, bewildered or out to cover up the true nature of what was going on. The writer breathes intelligence in every interview as he comes up with clever ways to get the virus on the move, such as cross-continent organ transplants or smugglers helping people out of quarantine zones. This helps quash the disbelief we all would have of “how exactly does this take over the world?”

Some of the best work is evident in the Israel/Palestine story. Of course, pre-war, this has its own political and social upheavals, so the virus only adds to the pool of problems the Middle East faces, with religion and military powers now coming into play as well. This is told from both sides of the Gaza strip, and from those both in power and those on the ground.

Once the plague begins to go global, the interviews shift to where the blame lies. At first we get glimpses of government officials discussing cover-up operations and attempts to avoid panic, but this also expands to give us a look at more interesting and obscure topics such as failed vaccine attempts and the embers of human-zombie contact on American soil.

The Great Panic spans a large chunk of the novel, and importantly deals with how humans became the losing side; a factor left out by most zombie movies where viewers are landed into the situation already after the government/society has collapsed. The tone here darkens significantly, and for the first time we begin to see the psychological implications of an undead world. Survivor stories feature a deranged woman, the fall of the army and the Russian side of the conflict.

After that we see just how big the fallout is, with stories of cannibalism and humans gone insane, either imitating zombies to their own demise or forming wild groups in the urban jungles. The book then takes the survivor cases in two groups-those still living in America and those located on other continents. Some pieces even go so far as to deal with life on the international space station, or life for a Japanese computer kid who is so hooked he fails to notice his parents gone for several days.

WordPress doesn’t have enough blog space to go into detail on all of the fascinating stories the author explores. As a result, I’ll focus finally on the last portion of the book, where I think the author succeeds to give the novel a lasting legacy. Here, during the human fight-back, we are painted a portrait of every aspect of the front line, whether it’s underwater, in cities, in Parisian catacombs or across the American Great Plains. Comprehensive would be insulting as a description, such is the extent to which it falls short in showing just how far the author’s research has prevailed. The ending is bitter sweet in most respects, with a lot of the earlier interviewees revisited to examine the aftershock. Realistically, if you took out the world zombie here and there, it really feels like the novel could have been the aftermath of any natural disaster. It’s less of a novel about zombies thriving, and more of a novel about humans clinging on, whatever for, and even then, remaining uncertain.

I would certainly recommend this on any summer reading list, if only for its merits in writing alone. Outside of that, the research, detail and difference in style the author brings to the table are commendable and go far beyond whatever Pitt and his friends were ever likely to achieve.