The Trial

Release – 1962

Director – Orson Welles

Orson Welle’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s absurdist masterpiece follows the plot closely, but upon inspection busts with design choices that layer its story with subtext. He called it his masterpiece, and at the time hardly a critic agreed. ‘A dead thing, like some tablet, found among the dust of forgotten men,’ said Charles Higham’s Welles biography.

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The original novel is no easy read, as Kafa never finished much of his work before his death and it was all released posthumously, and I would say that this adaptation is no easy watch either. Joseph K was never a very likable protagonist, he is easy to flare up and anger, coming across as arrogant and at times discourteous. For me, it was always about tone and the actual mystery of the case.

However, having Anthony Perkins play the part of the accused man was a stroke of genius, and intentional, as Welles knew very well that he was gay. Judged by every person he meets, avoiding the advances of every woman he comes across, even when K talks about his spouse, showing a picture, we never see her face as the photograph is held facing away from the camera.

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Visually the Trial stands tall, as tall as the cold, heartless buildings that litter the backdrop of the city. I would not be surprised if Terry Gillian’s own nightmarish dystopia in Brazil was influenced by the world of the Trial. All corporate, all concrete, and complicated, the cluttered scenes of the workplace built of rows and rows of desks, the buildings of many, many windows, the leering shadows looking to envelope the light. The use of close-ups and perspective is utterly suffocating. Perkins was no small man, yet he is often dwarfed by his surroundings and his foes through clever camera work.

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Its pacing may be strange for some, its narrative structure seemingly random, its tone too hopeless, yet the Trial was never a story driven by conventional rules, or ever meant to be a romp. It is a nightmare in story form, ruled by dream logic. Characters say the strangest, most random things, K trips from one place to another with little logical geographical sense. Dream Logic is a phrase that I would apply to this, from David Lynch’s own canon. Remembering that Gordon Cole, Lynch’s doppelganger, keeps a portrait of Kafka in his office, that reference becomes even more obvious. Modern reassessments have announced it to be a masterpiece, but for me, its influence in the many great works that followed it is enough respect, for the words of a critic mean little up against the love of an artist.

 

 

Under The Skin

Released – 2013

Director – Jonathan Glazer

Loosely based on Michel Faber’s novel and staring the world’s most famous, highest paid actress, Under the Skin, is a film that managed to get under the skin of many who watched it during its initial release, and confused the hell out of most and angered many more. Another ScarJo vehicle, this film is not.

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Scarlette Johansson’s alien masquerades as a brunette and picks up interested men and takes them home and, frankly it’s all up for interpretation but let’s just say it does not end well for her victims.

What fascinates me about Under the Skin its subtext and meta-story. Nothing is unintentional. The scenes where the usually glamorous Scarlette walks around rural Scotland, shot in drab, realistic tones is unusual and entrancing. She sticks out, literally, having never been shot in such a setting before. As she drives around looking for her next victim, the camera often lingers over her shoulder shakily, realistically. When you consider that some of the men she meets in the movie were not actually actors, it lends further layers to it’s message over the attraction between men and women. They have no idea who she is (her excellent English accent helps as well) beneath that wig.

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Eventually, the Female, as she is referred to in the credits, learns empathy and begins to understand and even perhaps enjoy what being human actually is like. She goes on a journey of discovery and darkness, where the mundane aspects of relationships become rather disturbing, fittingly leading to a bizarre and harrowing finale. Men do not come out of this tale in a positive light, for the most part, I must say.

Under the Skin is a mood piece through and through, from stale reality to dream-like horror, it offers little in the way of narrative direction for viewers to chew over. So opaque, it’s an experience that will differ from person to person. Me, I was definite that for every single second of her on-screen persona Scar-Jo’s casting in the film was completely intentional. Many viewers were probably well aware that the film has full-frontal nudity, and I must say it is quite an achievement to portray these scenes in a very de-sexualized way, just how the Female views herself.

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It’s a stunning movie, visually, and it’s sound design perfectly captures the alien atmosphere. That scraping, string fused theme I will not forget, nor ever be able to hear without imagining the impending doom it signals to come. This is no mainstream movie and I think its quite a daring venture for ScarJo, though I have always appreciated her acting ability and so find it not unsurprising that she would choose to make a small art film like this. Frankly, she is incredible here, she portrays the Female as emotionally untouchable, empathetically distant and inhumane, yet beautiful, entrancing and utterly compelling to watch in her growth.

I do wonder, however, whether I would have been as entranced by the film if the Female was played by a different actress. I can readily admit that I enjoy ScarJo so much so that she enhances everything she appears in.

Regardless, approach and view, with caution. The film too.

X-men

Release date: 2000

Director: Bryan Singer

Coming from a time where Superhero movies were still recovering from the disaster that was Batman & Robin, Bryan Singer’s X-men was a breath of fresh air and kick-started the Superhero movie genre as we know it today.

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It was a wonderful time to be an X-men fan. The comics were still great despite the Image fallout and the cartoon show was so true to the source material that children everywhere were learning about the actual origins of these characters. The voice acting was spot on and the individual actors became so synonymous that Capcom used them for their own X-men games and the ensuring Versus series.

A lot of fans were not too happy at the time, but personally, I was always open-minded about the various changes applied to this adaptation, including the muting the colors and extravagance of the comics. Gone is the yellow Spandex and in comes a smaller and slightly rearranged cast of characters. Sure, there are some missed opportunities (Sabertooth?) but to transfer the essence of the comics to the big screen sacrifices have to be made.

They did get a lot right. Hugh Jackman is perfect as the scarred amnesic Wolverine, Ian McKellen and Patrick Steward perform with the right amount of gravitas as their opposing side’s respect father figures. In fact, the very heart of the story pays great tribute to the essence of the original concept, including minorities, isolation, growing up and many of these are no better represented by Rogue’s part in the story.

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It was a clever idea to fuse Jubilee and Kittie Pryde’s newcomer position with Rogue’s character as her powers are so horrific that she is an outsider even to her fellow mutants from the moment she appears on-screen. Though she is my favorite character from the comics I can respect this design choice completely as it lends an emotional weight and a focal connection for non-comic fans. Still, there are plenty of knowing winks to other character’s original incarnations (Wolverine and Cyclops are perfect) to appreciate.

The action is well staged and the set pieces well thought out. The plot twists and turns and treats the audience with respect. X-men is an intelligent sci-fi thriller for the (then) modern age, and believe it or not it still holds up in 2012. This is because the heart of the original story is represented with honesty in the struggle between the ideologies represented by its two main leaders. Ultimately the X-men are a family, and bitch and argue like one. With plenty of cosmetic changes to annoy the ignorant, can you blame the producers after the burial of the Batman franchise? The same realistic tone worked pretty well for the caped crusader’s own resurrection too, years later.

 

X-men: First Class

Release date: 2011

Director: Matthew Vaughn

After the absolute destruction of the core franchise via The Last Stand, X-men: First Class brings about sighs of relief. It might be different, it might mess with continuity, it might literally shaft several characters, but the core of the source material is perfectly captured.

This prequel takes an enormous step back in time to the Cuban missile crisis and introduces us to a young Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) and their blossoming relationship and eventual fallout. These two titans of comic history are perfectly cast and the actors not only drip with charisma but also play off each other so well you cannot help but be entranced. I personally would have found the pressure of following up either Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen unbearable.

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I absolutely loved Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. Cocky and so sure of himself, Bacon is a villain that is so cool you cannot help but look forward to his next appearance. Even if his attire and background differ with the comics, this new take is executed perfectly. With January Jones as the White Queen by his side, the bad guys are not only bad but bad-ass.

I’ve always enjoyed the intelligence of a good X-men story and First Class delivers with great moments of intrigue and well-thought use of powers and character. The ever-escalating drama tightens up right up until the end of the story drives the film at a brisk pace. Of a certain character’s fate any fan of the films, comics or television series already knows what must happen, and the feverish anticipation is not subdued one bit upon the climax.

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I must digress, there is some disappointment for me personally, especially as we look forward to the release of Days of Future Past. I felt this re-imagining was so effective that connecting it into the original movies has served only a disservice to its cleverness. Why even connect them at all? I would have much preferred a brand new reboot in this universe. Did we really love Hale Berry that much as Storm? Hugh Jackman continues to impress even in cameo form, but removing the Summer’s brother’s relationship was a mistake. I admit that despite having no connection to the comics, Xavier’s relationship with a certain villain formed an enjoyable thread until its final fruition at the finale.

Musically Henry Jackman’s simplistic score does well to emphasize some of the great moments but was dubstep the answer? Guitar tracks can be effective here and there but this is Magneto! A missed opportunity despite the odd stirring theme.

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So finally, as a fanboy, and I do tend to try to not look at comic book movies through biased perspective, I feel my overall opinion on this interpretation will have to wait until the release of Days of Future past to decide whether adjoining these timelines was a good idea. As a standalone film, it excels. Its characters have real depth and their relationships are not only interesting but against the backdrop of the greater story arc, they excel. I just cannot help but feel disappointed at the thought of this fresh, new take not being given the opportunity to flourish. We will see.

(Originally written in 2014)

The Wolverine

Release date: 2013

Director: James Mangold

Based on the classic Frank Miller and Chris Claremont limited series, this newest entry into the cinematic X-men franchise at least improves upon Origins and The Last Stand but also reiterates the lessons we have learned not just from the Christopher Nolan Batman films, and Marvel’s own…

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Hugh Jackman is still likable as the world-weary rogue and his pining for the now dead Jean Grey continues via a series of high concept but over-numerous dream sequences. Logan is sort after by an old acquaintance and is fed through a series of events that leads to him losing his powers and thus the mystery begins.

Doesn’t sound much like the comic does it? But what is here is relatively engaging and a huge improvement on the messy and wafer-thin entertainment of Wolverine Origins, and a thousand times more involving than the depressing franchise-killer that was the Last Stand.

I just can’t help but feel that not only has the original story been more or less ignored, but is also a far, far stronger. Shingen, Yukio, and Mariko are all present but their parts in the story are rearranged. I could not help but feel utter disappointment when Shingen was ejected from the narrative. I understand that when adapting material writers want to apply their own ideas but when what is created does not improve upon or tribute the source in any way (Transformers anyone?) why bother in the first place?

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I’m not about to shout the movie down on Youtube or Facebook. In the end, I can still happily return to the original graphic novel whenever I wish. But I just cannot shake the feeling that this has been a missed opportunity. Bane still broke Batman’s back in the Dark Knight Rises. I cannot understand how the writers thought that Wolverine losing his powers was more interesting than being completely dishonored in the comics. Perhaps they believe it is more palpable for mainstream audiences?

Still, it is a fine movie with a good character arc and fine performances all round with plenty of decent set-pieces, and some are original too. I can imagine those who have not read the original story enjoying this film a lot more than those who have.

(Written in 2014)

The Dark Knight Strikes Again

Publication Date: 2001

Publisher: Dc Comics

The Dark Knight Returns was a landmark title that helped propel comics into the adult consciousness. It gave Batman a new, psychotic voice and helped us readers gather a new understanding of how the man thinks and feels. Nearly twenty years later Frank Miller finally follows up his classic piece and the results are… Interesting.

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Expectations are the enemy here. I besiege any readers to quell them as quickly as possible, preferentially before you turn the first page and the eye-popping colors threaten to knock you out. This is not the grim Gotham of 1986. This is comics as they once were, bold, vibrant and completely over the top. An operatic tragedy this is not at all.

The Dark Knight strikes again is an Else-world of an Else-world. That’s how I view this pseudo-sequel. Superman isn’t the weapon of mass destruction anymore, the American government is not his superior for they are being controlled by outside forces. Batman isn’t the revolutionary of 86, he’s the superhero uncovering a government take over. A concept that in my opinion completely undermines the story of the original.

So, taken on its own terms as an alternative reality to The Dark Knight Returns, how does it fare? Pretty well if you ask me. There are some brilliant moments involving Kryptonite gloves and the strength of the relationship between Superman and Wonder woman is well portrayed. The story could have benefited from another issue to further develop its many plot points (it runs to an odd three issues) such as the return of Dick Grayson.

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I do wonder whether Frank Miller bothered to re-read the original since its release as he seems to have forgotten a great many things. Characters that died are still alive, beliefs and opinions drastically change. It all reinforces my belief that this is not a direct sequel but an insane twisted alternate reality to an already dark twisted alternative reality. And the many returning characters to the Miller-verse are just as strange, and the new additions are even stranger (read: Plasticman.)

The social commentary continues but it is far less effective here. Instead, The Dark Knight Strikes again is best taken as a completely over the top comic book more akin to a time where ideas were more important than gritty realism. In its sense of fun, it succeeds.

Sunshine

Release date: 2007

Director: Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle’s hard science fiction film is an interesting bundle of contradictions. Earth is trapped in an infinite winter as our sun is dying and the second attempt to reignite it in seven years sets sail into space.

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An all-star, multi-cultural cast is aboard the Icarus II, headed by Cillian Murphy, and across the board the performances are excellent, clearly aided by the cast spending much bonding time together prior to the film. There’s plenty of conversations and arguments to separate and highlight the various personalities but I would say there is not really that much to love either. I never really disliked any of the characters, but I was never completely attached.

There’s horror and it’s at its most effective when the crew is faced with the limitless, incomprehensible nature of space and the extreme magnitude of their mission. I don’t want to spoil but there are some chilling moments caused by the expedition and the environment in which it is pursued. Visually the film is stunning, the interior of the Icarus is well designed, all bleached whites and blues and creates a great contrast when the sun enters the scene.

Sadly it all goes downhill from there as Sunshine enters predictable slasher territory and I nearly reached for the remote. I just could not understand why, aside from studio pressure, Alex Garland would switch up the tone so drastically. The horror of reality is far more palpable than some bogeyman.

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On a lighter note, the mostly electronic score was excellent, composed by Underworld and John Murphy. Also, a nice nod to a certain other influential space drama waits towards the end, what a shame that its influences are not embedded into the narrative more so. The insanity of space is touched upon ever so slightly (the Icarus II has not only a psychiatrist on board but a relaxation holodeck for when members of the crew start to shift towards the opposite end of normality.) I found this quite intriguing and could not help but wish that it could have been developed much more?

In hindsight, I must sound drastically annoyed by this film but really I was just disappointed. This is nigh on perfect space-drama ruined by some mainstream credentials towards the end. Watch it with an understanding mind, for I already knew something was coming just from the trailer, and appreciate Sunshine for its good points. There are many of them.

Man of Steel

Release date: 2013

Director: Zack Snyder

So the latest in the David. S. Goyer penned D.C comic book movies is directed by Zack Snyder of Watchmen fame, a man who is renowned for style over substance. This begins D.C’s reach for Marvel’s supremely successful cinematic universe. Personally, I would say this is a pretty good start.

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Man of Steel has apparently divided fans and critics. I get the impression most of these haters were intentionally looking for things to dislike. There are plot holes, such as the landing Kryptonians immediately succumbing to the change of atmosphere and suffering super-powers whereas Clark gradually develops them. I believe this to be because of Clark’s gradual integration from a young age in comparison to General Zod already being fully accustomed to Krypton’s atmosphere.

Kevin Costner is also a topic for discussing as his performance is surprisingly effective. Why is it however that he must tell Clark to hide his powers at the cost of lives? When he scolds a young Clark for saving a school bus of children and revealing his powers, Thomas Kent comes across as stubborn, ignorant and one dimensional. Sure he cares for his foster son above all but some acknowledgment of pride in the saving of lives would at least add some humility. His death also, a typical hallmark and turning point for Clark’s growth into the Superman role, was completely mishandled. I won’t spoil further, decide for yourself.

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Sure sounds like I have a problem with this movie doesn’t it? But aside from Amy Adam’s being rather underwhelming (perhaps because of the high standards of the majority of the Louis Lane’s before her) I thoroughly enjoyed Man of Steel. Henry Cavil is superb as Kal-El, sporting the right physique and chiseled jaw. His clean good looks and thoughtful soft voice only add to his charisma. The moment he dons the costume for the first time, the moment he feels the energies of the sun flowing through him, I could not simply help but feel completely behind him.

And knowing Superman is definitely one of Man of Steel’s biggest strengths, for I felt coming out of the cinema that I had a greater understanding of him than before in the other movies. The nonlinear narrative (itself a device to differentiate itself from other origin stories) tells much of Clark before he becomes Kal once more.

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By the time we reach the climactic fight scenes by the end of the movie’s slightly bloated running time, we are willing Kal-El to overcome his adversaries, the returning general Zod. If there’s one element that Man of Steel has over the previous films it is action. These final sequences must be the most accurate on-screen depiction of what would happen if a bunch of Kryptonians had a bar-brawl on earth. One can only assume the thousands of innocents in Manhattan got away unscathed. Still, it is a real spectacle.

In closing, I must mention my distaste for the score and its reflection of the general tone of the movie. Only at one point is there joy, and when Superman soars for the first time, so finally does Hans Zimmer’s theme. Like Superman’s first attempt at flight, Man of Steel is a leap of a movie. I must say that with the constant revelations of cast and parts for the upcoming sequel, it’s a shame we might not get to see the series really take flight with its potential. I can only hope that Batman versus Superman, or whichever way round they decide to place the title, will be an actual proper Superman film. If anything Henry Cavil deserves it.

(originally written in 2014)

 

 

 

 

The Guyver

Release Date: 1994

Director: Koichi Ishiguro

Studio: Bandai

The Guyver is a series that I have loved since a very, very early age. I think it was my father who rented the original live-action movie featuring Mark Hamil and being of a very young age I rather enjoyed it. Then I saw the trailer for Manga Video’s twelve-part OAV series, possibly on a rented VHS copy of Gunhead.

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It blew me away. I think I must have watched the trailer over and over, not knowing that it would be featured before every single Manga Video release over the next twelve months. The music, the gory action, the awesome designs of the Zoanoids and seeing a proper, accurate rendition of the Guyver’s armor for the first time in animated form all contributed to my awe.

The actual release of the series was a novel idea, and it was very well marketed. Released over a period of twelve months, each episode was available on a single VHS tape. The pricing was a little off, I doubt a retailer could release such a scheme nowadays but aside from the follow-up, the far less interesting Legend of the Four Kings, I have never seen such a schedule since. For a twenty-five minute episode you paid five pounds and for a thirty-minute episode, you paid six. Crazy stuff.

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Beginning with student Sho Fukamachi discovering one of the coveted Guyver units, the alien technology bonds with his body and gifts him unbelievable powers. Chased by the Chronos Corporation, Sho must not only protect himself but also his friends when they start to make it personal.

With such a limited number of episodes, the series is distinctly lacking an ending and removes many many plot points from the manga. Saving the revelations of Murakami for the penultimate episode was really frustrating! But ultimately what is here is very good. The animation is of a fair standard, particularly the visceral and energetic fight scenes and the voice acting improves with time.

The cast of characters are great, Agito was always a favorite of mine, I like complex, self-serving characters. Aptom too gets some good scenes but is not given nearly enough time to shine as in the comics. Commander Guyot, another fascinating character, is extremely simplified, a shame that is attributed to the short length of the series. However the less said about Deus Ex Machina Tetsuo and scream-box sister Mizuki, the better.

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Still, like many anime adaptations of yesteryear, the primary goal was to advertise the manga and I was soon buying the English translations. Sadly Viz Comics only released up to volume 7 in U.K but with this anime series only covering bits and pieces of the first four volumes at least I got to read some of what I was missing.

Years later a new full twenty-six episode series was commissioned. In retrospect, I do think a lot of the action is far more dramatic in this original OAV. The scenes involving Sho’s school and father are very dramatic and powerful and what it lacks in overall depth of story adaptation accuracy, this series does deliver the action.

I must ask, did anyone else guess the identity of Guyver 3 from the end credits?

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