Sunday, August 6th, 2006
Film review: Stormbreaker. Sunday 6th Aug, 2006 | 9:40 pm

Oh dear me. The start of a new franchise this ain’t. Someone spent a lot of money on this film, and boy, was that ever a mistake. Big stars, big explosions, big names in fight choreography can’t save this turgid, bipolar rehash of tried-and-tested ideas from being a flop, which despite an epic marketing campaign it’s looking to be, playing to nearly empty auditoriums and all but disappearing from cinema listings in the country that should be its spiritual home before it even opens in the US.

The premise is simple: take all the James Bond clichés you can think of, from evil plots to unleash a virus across the world to the spy who is our main character escaping peril through the unlikely use of various gadgets. And then make the main character a child. No, it’s not an original idea (cf. Spy Kids, Agent Cody Banks et al) but then, not is Harry Potter, and that never did him any harm.

Like Harry Potter, this movie is adapted from a successful YA novel, but unfortunately, in adapting his own work, Anthony Horrowitz didn’t learn the valuable lessons taught by the Potter box office monsters. I may not have been a big fan of the first Potter film, but they got the tone right. Where the first Harry Potter and, I presume, Horrowitz’s book gleefully mixed daft British humour, straight action and some unoriginal but exciting action scenes, the first Harry Potter movie downplayed the silliness (gone were tube map-shaped scars, headless ghosts and pink umbrellas were peripheral and subdued etc) and upped the dark gothic romanticism, Stormbreaker just doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be a serious spy story or a tongue-in-cheek parody, so just mashes the two together and hopes for the best. Unfortunately, the effect is like mixing the wrong paints. The end result is a mess, neither of the colours you began with, but something else you don’t want. While you have the scenes of our hero, Alex Rider, done as straight as possible, you also have Bill Nighy and whoever played the female baddie hamming it up as though they were in a sketch comedy show. While you have gorgeous sets, intricately designed to the highest possible standard, you also have shots of fake seagulls about as realistic as the singing birds in The Producers and stray pistol shots making dead pigeons fall from the sky. Undoubtedly cool (if extremely unlikely) fight scenes with our hero using a rope in full martial arts stylee to knock out half a dozen hefty builders are contrasted with that bad-guy henchwoman and a babysitter having a totally unfunny slapstick fight.

The great cast is wasted. Fry appears for about ten seconds in a half-arsed performance as the Q equivalent, all of whose gadgets of course HAPPEN to be exactly what Alex needs at various points in the movie, and who was responsible for one of the most shameful instances of product placement I’ve ever seen. McGreggor is lucky, not even surviving the title sequence. Rourke just looks bored.

And then there’s Alex Pettyfer. Not as attractive as the posters made him look, and so wooden the term ‘chiselled looks’ sounds literal, I can’t see any way the boys of his age, the target audience here, would want to be like him. I’m almost entirely sure the vast majority of him would much rather punch the shit out of him. In fairness, it’s not really Pettryfer’s fault. The script requires him to never show a shred of emotion, act so cocky when undercover that it is immediately obvious he is a spy, get the girl in under three lines, possess superhuman abilities in combat and vehicular control and worst of all, wisecrack. Alex Rider never puts a foot wrong. As a result, I found myself really hoping he would die, as he blatantly would have done in the situation.

This could have been a parody along the lines of Johnny English. That would have excused the utter turd of a plot, which must have taken as much thought to conceive as does flatulence, if that. Utterly predictable, the only surprise in the whole film was that the expected ‘I AM your father’ twist never came, thank goodness – the film wouldn’t’ve been above it. To be done as seriously as it tried to take itself, as a heartfelt homage, it would have to have been much better written, and without the Beano characterisation. The only part that came close to that kind of standard was a side-story about Alex’s training in Wales, which ended in farce and was totally unnecessary to the story.

Definitely not a film worth seeing. When the highlight of a whole film is its brief shots of London (admittedly looking stunning), you know you are in trouble. Avoid like a bright green vial of virus juice.
mood | disappointed

3 wild stabs | Skewer me with your wit!

Friday, July 21st, 2006
Marvel's Onslaught Saga, and comics vs. manga Friday 21st Jul, 2006 | 1:19 am
It’s no secret that a great love of my life is manga, but turn back the clock an entire decade to when I was twelve years old, and it was comics that I loved. In particular – in fact, purely and simply – it was X-Men that I adored. It wasn’t easy to get the latest issues from America (Marvel UK only printing re-runs in any order they fancied, or so it seemed) but I managed to get a few issues from one shop – and the storyline rocking the entire Marvel universe was that of Onslaught.

They were the first comics of the series: Onslaught was revealed in all his unstoppable strength, born of the merging of the X-Men’s trusted mentor and their greatest enemy, defeating the Juggernaut in an instant, decimating the X-Men and kidnapping Franklin Richards, son of Reed and Sue Richards of The Fantastic Four, a mutant destined to become one of the most powerful beings in existence. With his power, along with that of reality-manipulating Nate Grey, Onslaught makes himself a fortress, unleashes Sentinels on New York City and is only stopped by the sacrifice of just about all the non-mutant superheroes based in New York, including The Avengers, The Fantastic Four and Bruce Banner (although he was separated from The Incredible Hulk). The effect on the Marvel Universe was huge, many series getting almost totally reset and all sorts of alternate universes being created, and at some point or another just about every Marvel character, from Spiderman to Namor the Sub-Mariner to Excalibur to The Punisher, was drawn into the saga in some way or another, and now, in 2006, Marvel is re-releasing and adding to the ‘Heroes Reborn’ series that began when I was so little.

Back then, I only read one or two bits and pieces, never knowing how the story ended. Well, of course, the story ends in a much less clever way than it promises: there’s a big scrap. But hey, this is a comic book and big scraps (with lots of stirring dialogue about self-sacrifice and going out in a blaze of glory amongst friends) are what they do best. And you can’t beat dozens of characters from different comic books coming together and fighting as one, even if Hulk and the Avengers always seemed that little bit harder to take seriously than the X-Men.

It’s also very interesting for me now to look at Western comics after absorbing so much manga. The aesthetic differences are marked; there’s the very basic conflict of simplicity vs. realism, and while anime artists can draw in extremely realistic ways, they’re always one or two notches more stylised than comic books in terms of faces and reactions – plus where comic books tend to focus on musculature (often highly exaggerated), grittiness and the essentially naked form, manga is far more centred on prettiness, grace, androgyny. It’s also very interesting to see different artists at work. Every manga series I’ve ever read has been drawn by one person. Comics change pencil artists and inkers all the time, and particularly in cross-over events like this, you see the same characters depicted in some very different ways, which is fascinating but sometimes a tad distracting. Also, it’s a minor thing, but being translated, I always give manga dialogue a kind of immunity, whereas clumsy comic book dialogue sometimes loses its charm and makes me cringe, and I’m much less forgiving of little mistakes (witness loquacious and eloquent Hank McCoy offering a ‘google of thanks’, or a narrator’s using ‘irrevocable’ for ‘really’).

In the end, while manga tend to be produced on tighter schedules (most of the popular shounen series like Naruto are written and drawn by the same mangaka in just one week) and comic books tend to be more detailed and all-colour, there’s a very different flavour to them, a different target audience and a sense of ambition and sincerity in many manga that comics seldom really touch upon. Both can be childish, formulaic and full of plot holes, true, but I have to say, a manga will almost always do it in a much prettier way…
mood | thoughtful

| Skewer me with your wit!

Sunday, July 16th, 2006
Book Review: A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve Sunday 16th Jul, 2006 | 2:39 pm

It seems to happen to every author who writes adventure stories for young adults; what begins as a silly, frivolous series written with tongue firmly in cheek becomes, with the addition of the catalyst known as ‘success’, something very self-important, epic and serious. This can result in some real trainwrecks of misguided overambitious last novels, but Philip Reeve just barely manages to escape this pitfall.

This bloated novel, almost as fat as a Harry Potter doorstop, is that last of Philip Reeves’ charming Hungry City Chronicles, and despite its scale remains frivolous enough to avoid looking like self-parody. The Stalker Fang is still alive, and now she has the codes to awaken the orbital superweapon ODIN. Meanwhile, there are signs of life in the old wreck of London, Tom Natsworthy’s old town. He and his daughter Wren want to go and see if there might have been survivors, but for that, they will have to enter into Green Storm territory, where despite a truce, the inhabitants of moving cities are not welcome.

With three books’ worth of backstory, this is certainly not for the uninitiated, but there’s much to recommend the previous stories, and I feel it’s quite a shame Reeve isn’t getting more attention than he already is. His daft wit, extremely well-realised but also totally bizarre future setting, his love of classic boys’ adventure storytelling and his talent for occasionally spicing a descriptive passage with a metaphor that he beautifully extends that little bit further than expected are all admirable, and you’ll find few books more fun than this one, or more evocative and cinematic in the telling.

The major flaw of the book, however, is its mess of a plot. Reeve uses the classic weak storyline approach of having half a dozen different plotlines overlapping at the same time, with far too many characters becoming the focus of attention for just a few pages before disappearing again while the others have their turns. The action is kept fast-paced by this constant switching, but without much to really capture the interest in any of them, it all starts to get a bit dull, and the characters become more expositional vehicles than people in their own rights. Some bad decisions also lead to characters like Fishcake who begin in very interesting situations and have some of the book’s best emotional development barely appearing, while Theo, who was just totally flat and uninteresting and seems to have been included mostly because Reeve was fetishising the idea of having a mixed-race romantic couple in his books, spends chapters and chapters getting into irrelevant scrapes and ultimately being of no consequence whatsoever. The climax of the action is anything but climactic, and everything seems to fizzle out as Reeve realises he’s gone on for over 50 chapters. Some secondary characters get killed off for no reason but to look heroic, characters who should have strong bonds barely seem to think about one another, comic relief characters get far more attention in far more contrived ways than I would have expected from Reeve, who genuinely did surprise me in some of the previous books, and only a highly cheesy but also extremely beautiful final passage saves the whole ending from being a sad implosion of bathos.

But that final passage really did lift my spirits, and reminded me of the deeper undercurrents of thought running through the series beneath the adrenaline rush. A highly enjoyable YA sci-fi series, quintessentially British and always a lot of fun. My gripes about characters making metaphors with knowledge they almost certainly wouldn’t have, cultural homogeny, silly names and a degree of smugness remain, but they’re outweighed by the sheer sugar-rush of exuberance the books unleash.
mood | cheerful

2 wild stabs | Skewer me with your wit!

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006
For all RPG fans Wednesday 5th Jul, 2006 | 2:14 pm
I KNOW you're gonna find this funny.
3 wild stabs | Skewer me with your wit!

Monday, July 3rd, 2006
Monday 3rd Jul, 2006 | 4:09 am

4am. *dies*
| Skewer me with your wit!

Sunday, June 4th, 2006
Sunday 4th Jun, 2006 | 4:58 pm
Eek! Procrastinating!

Anime Meme: I am FAR too obsessed...Collapse )
mood | Shocked!

2 wild stabs | Skewer me with your wit!

Sunday, May 14th, 2006
Funny link Sunday 14th May, 2006 | 8:28 pm
Click here to see an amusing video from a Japanese TV show that's doing a report on Americans who love anime. It's quite bizarre, seeing the perspective of the Japanese, and they've certainly chosen some entertaining subjects. Won't give any great insight into what the Japanese really think, and isn't exactly representational of all kinds of gaijin otaku, but nonetheless is very interesting to watch. Much like a train wreck.
| Skewer me with your wit!

Wednesday, August 10th, 2005
Yotsuba&! Wednesday 10th Aug, 2005 | 10:27 am
Up with the lark this morning – or at least, with the postman. Half a dozen cheques, a rejection (Merric Davidson) and a little package – from my very favourite Brummie, Clare. She sent me the first two volumes of Yotsuba&! (pronounced ‘yotsubato!’), Kiyohiko Azuma’s follow-up to Azumanga Daioh. It’s more of the same, in many ways, but oh boy, there aren’t many things I’d want more and more and more of, but Kiyohiko-sensei’s humour…well, there just aren’t enough superlatives to describe how enjoyable it is!

If Azumanga Daioh’s focus is on friendship, Yotsubato&! revolves around the family – two families, in fact: one normal family, one unusual father-daughter pair. The contrast between the Ayase family – the three daughters, Ena, Fuuka and Asagi, plus their mum and dad (though the dad hasn’t appeared yet) – and Yotsuba and her adoptive father drives the comedy, but of course, once again, it’s the characters that count.

Yotsuba herself is utterly irresistible. Cute as a button, she is totally naïve and doesn’t know a thing about how the world works – but every new discovery is met by hyperactive enthusiasm of one sort or another. Moving into a new neighbourhood, she and her father meet the Ayase sisters, and find that each of them, while a perfectly normal girl, has their own personality, their own little quirks. Add in Ena’s friend Miuchi and Yotsuba’s father’s giant friend Jimbo, whose personality matches his size right up until he gets nervous around pretty girls, and the stage is set for an utterly brilliant comedy.

With the kind of plaintive, innocent humour and moments of poignancy that made Azumanga such a joy, it’s an instant classic – Boxer Man, the attack of Hanako the eyeball, gangster-Yotsuba’s sad defeat…I haven’t laughed so much in a while. Brilliant stuff. How can something this good be just some obscure comic from Japan? People don’t know what they’re missing, really they don’t!

Now, I’d better get up and ready for a day of posting.
mood | amused

5 wild stabs | Skewer me with your wit!

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