I am writing this in an aluminium tube many miles above the ground that’s taking me all the way to Amsterdam. For work, not pleasure, natch. But anyway. Enjoy this reawakening of Schlock from the slumber that was hiatus – not that there’s any difference between hiatus and regular working hours at Schlock HQ, mind. Whenever I visit, all I see is the Hive Mind lounging around on lawn chairs, drinking gin-based cocktails* and plotting genteel way of murdering one another. Except for Teodor who, as recently revealed, is actually a Playmobil figure.
*If you’re wondering, the intern prepares the beverages. She’s very handy with a cocktail shaker. That was the sole reason for her (zero pay) employment.
Word might have come to you that Breaking Bad ended just a few weeks back. That’s something of a big deal, seeing Breaking Bad is only THE GREATEST AMERICAN TV SERIAL OF ALL TIME. There, I’ve said it. The ending was pretty much the perfect capstone with which to end such greatness, even if I’ve seen some folks disagree with such a statement. But those people are mad and also wrong! Anyway, next up is waiting for how good the Better Call Saul show will be. Not that there’s much worries about that, since Bob Odenkirk’s involvement ensures it will be Very Excellent.
Speaking of television serials, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (aka Cryptofascist Technocrats of W.H.E.D.O.N.) started recently and, as predicted, rarely reaches levels beyond those of mild entertainment. Which is a shame, since one would think that lots of fun would be had in company of secret agents operating within the Marvel Universe, even if it’s the Cinematic equivalent. But good grief, not with Agent “he’s awesome, seriously” Coulson, Level 6 Agent, Annoying Science Duo, Lady Kato (she drives the bus AND kicks people in the face AND she’s Asian!) and Whedon Lady Protagonist Who Is Clever And Also Sassy. A bunch of dorks, the lot of them.
Really if you want to watch new television you’d be best off with KILL la KILL, the new anime from the geniuses at Studio Trigger. It encapsulates all the reasons I watch Japanese animation – dynamic action, daft humour and, yes, really dumb fanservice.
Games! If you’re reading this, chances are you’re doing so on a computer. If that’s the case I’ll guide you to The Stanley Parable, whose demo is the best of the year. I won’t spoil any of it, because it’s that good. Then get the full game because holy shit it’s one of the most clever things I’ve played in ages.
PACIFIC RIM (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2013)
Question: What is the best way to deal with gigantic, city-destroying monsters from another dimension?Answer: Equally gigantic city-destroying monster-destroying robots, obviously.
Guillermo del Toro clearly understands the logic to the answer of the above question, seeing how Pacific Rim is nothing less than the ultimate robot vs monster movie. Sure, there’s also a very human story of standing strong in the face of the apocalypse (WE’RE CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE, as Idris Elba’s wonderfully named STACKER PENTECOST famously shouts), of broken human beings healing each other, of family, of hope, but don’t get it wrong – Pacific Rim’s ultimate draw is robots (or “Jaegers” but anyway) punching those damn monsters right in the kisser, and del Toro knows that.
Actually, let’s go back to Pacific Rim’s very human heart. Set in the final years of the so-called Kaiju War, it tells the tale of Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), ex-Jaeger pilot broken following his brother’s death during one sortie against one oversized beastie. Convinced to get back in the Jaeger game for a final strike against the menace, Beckett joins Mako Mori (an extremely likable Rinko Kikuchi) in the piloting Gipsy Danger, Beckett’s former ride. Paired in the robot’s cockpit, Raleigh and Mako help each other defeat their respective demons – both figuratively and, of course, literally by punching, shooting and slicing giant monsters. It’s all good fun.
Mako is worth speaking a bit more about since her lack of agency, trapped between Raleigh and overly protective adoptive father Stacker Pentecost, still rivals that of any female character in a major blockbuster from the last, oh, decade or so. Not that the situation excuses Pacific Rim for having a single female character with a speaking part (the scant handful of lines spoken by the other “major” female character, Russian pilot Kaidanovsky, are hardly worth note), or that said female character is stuck following her male partner’s instructions, but at least it invites discussion on male-female roles in action cinema rather than quashing it outright.
Of course, there’s further, smaller subplots – such as comedy scientist frienemy duo Dr Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and their attempts at unlocking the secrets behind the war, leading to the meeting with kaiju organ dealer Hannibal Chau (the typically wonderful Ron Pearlman) within a Blade Runner-esque Hong Kong replete with slums built around the ribs of a fallen kaiju, or the strained father-son relationship between cocky Australian pilots Herc (Max Martini) and Chuck (Robert Kazinsky) Hansen. These accompany a rapidly escalating situation, as del Toro deftly heightens both tension and the scale of the action. From an attack by a single kaiju we get to two simultaneous monsters until, in the end, our heroes fight three in the depths of the ocean as they attempt to make it to an interdimensional portal. That all is clearly presented and never tiring or less than thrilling is something of a big screen miracle.
The more demanding of critics might ask more of del Toro, the man behind modern classic Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). There’s hints of a more subtle directorial voice in the aforementioned sections involving Hannibal Chau, and a standout flashback sequence starring young Mako Mori stumbling through a kaiju-besieged Tokyo. Such moments make one wish del Toro went for something more akin to Children of Men (2006), with the giant robot action relegated to the sidelines. But then again – giant robot action, as beautifully rendered by ILM, on the big screen! Now that I think of it, I can’t believe my considering an alternative to such good, clean fun.
BIOSHOCK INFINITE (Irrational Games, 2013)
A few points about Bioshock Infinite (2013), the latest, mostly critically acclaimed (aside of score-free opinion pieces Metacritic ignores) game from developers Irrational Games.
1.) Infinite is a game by Ken Levine, Irrational Games co-founder and former designer at Looking Glass, the studio behind Thief: The Dark Project, of which Levine was the mind behind the initial fiction and design. Following Thief Levine worked on the excellent System Shock 2 and its (according to this reviewer) less excellent spiritual sequel, Bioshock, to whose legacy Infinite is direct successor.
2.) Through Ken Levine Infinite gets something of an auteur, or at least the closest to an auteur the games medium can get. In the least Levine lends the game a unified vision and a cohesive “story” with a clearly demarcated beginning, middle and end, something that’s still a rarity in a medium whose attempts at narrative tend to be little more than collections of basic pulp/genre tropes, worthy indie attempts notwithstanding. Of course, the actual quality of the narrative behind Infinite remains in question.
3.) At best, Infinite reaches the narrative highs of a finer Doctor Who episode. It’s a curious mash of low pulp and watered down political commentary, an oh-so-clever short story for the electronic entertainment era. The “Infinite” of the title refers to the infinity of possibilities brought about by our choices, or at least that’s what the gibberish mouthed by a Cheshire Cat in the shape of a scientist duo suggests. In fact there’s zero possibility in Infinite – the game might as well be commentary on the illusion of choice, despite its multiple hops through (identical-looking) alternate realities.
4.) Infinite reminds how use of the audio diary, that one narrative device unique to games, deserves to die.
5.) Before release Infinite’s box art (pictured above, left) stirred controversy due to its being a picture of a man with a gun in front of a logo. “I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over,” Ken Levine told Wired in way of explanation. “Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back. Look at that creature. And start to read about it, start to think about it.” Eventually compromise was reached via reversible cover art allowing fans to replace man-with-gun with a whispy ink drawing of a bird-robot-monster and a zeppelin on a red background (above, right)
6.) I think Bioshock Infinite‘s box art is perfect as a representation of the game in question.
7.) Infinite is a shooter. It might have narrative ambitions, but so do all other shooters – Far Cry 3 has its pretentions on madness and sanity, Halo desperately wants to be Star Wars by way of Iain M. Banks, all the Call of Duty and Battlefield titles carry a “story” worthy of any sub-Tom Clancy novel. Fact remains most of your time in Infinite is spent trundling through arenas, shooting men. They might be gorgeous arenas, clad in fine artwork and resplendent god rays, but arenas they remain.
8.) When not in an arena time in Infinite is spent trundling through a themepark of commentary-free racist imagery, lazy liberal pandering and weak commentary. Did you know militant abolitionist movements are as bad as violent religious fanaticism?
9.) An example of the fine commentary seen in Infinite is a slum bearing the name “Shanty Town.” Its inhabitants work at the factories owned by Fink, a moustache-twirling arch-capitalist who’s eventually murdered by the leader of the militant abolitionists, one Daisy Fitzroy.
10.) Fink’s murder is depicted as A Bad Thing because No Side of an Argument Is Ever Good (unless you count the one true side, Spineless Neutrality).
11.) Infinite is not even a very good shooter. The many firearms available lack in punch or interest, the weapon upgrade system is a baffling mess, the secondary superpowers gained throughout are generally uninspired, and the Halo-style shield gained early on is too weak to allow any playstyle beyond hiding behind level furniture and going for potshots. Just as well that enemies show little more AI than that of the Nazis shot in Wolfenstein 3D. They are also mainly composed of men, men who fling fire or crows at you, and large robot men with very strong punches. The stronger the enemy, the more bullets it takes to kill. Once all the men are dead, the player can proceed to rifle through their corpses to receive coins, sandwiches, cans of coffee and whole pineapples.
12.) Livening things slightly is Elizabeth. Oh, Elizabeth, a lovely magical Disney princess trapped in the cage that’s a tedious manshooter. She takes care of herself perfectly during firefights, sometimes flings healthkits and coins at you, and even uses lockpicks to unlock doors (even if, she doesn’t find lockpicks herself – you have to find them yourself before she can access them). At one point Elizabeth is cruelly snatched away, and her loss is acutely felt… at least until you reach a locked door, at which point the game informs you “Elizabeth Busy — CAN’T LOCKPICK“
13.) Infinite has one of the worst boss levels in videogame history in the shape of Elizabeth’s mother, who’s now a ghost because of quantum-based reasons, apparently. And because it’s such a good fight you get to do it three times, which is not desperate padding in any way.
14.) Back in 1994, Edge Magazine famously snubbed Doom, iD’s successor to Wolfenstein 3D. “lf only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them, form alliances…” the magazine asked. Perhaps one can’t expect human language from the hellspawn inhabiting Doom’s corridors, but what about the very human inhabitants of Infinite’s Columbia?
15.) It’s high time to start acting as snobs towards games that are not up to scratch.
GATCHAMAN CROWDS (Tatsunoko Productions, 2013)
The name might say Gatchaman, but CROWDS has so little to do with the 1972 Science Ninja Team (aka Battle of the Planets) it might as well have been called something else entirely. Okay, there’s at least some similarities – both shows involve a quintet of youths able to transform into stylish costumed heroes, and… that’s just about it, really. CROWDS starts off in a near future where the aforementioned Gatchaman are an urban legend, invisible warriors busy protecting the world against likewise invisible aliens. Why? Because a “transcendent being” of dubious origin tells them to do so. Meanwhile the rest of the population is busy playing around on GALAX, a social network that’s basically Facebook with cute avatars and none of the suck. Oh, and the possibility of turning people into super-entities known as CROWDS. These entities’ appearance whenever disasters take place is the cue for the show to hastily drop the invisible aliens to concentrate on more interesting themes. After all, in a world where everyone can be turned into a superhero, what’s the point of caped avengers? If great power carries great responsibility, how greater are the responsibilities of those able to bestow other individuals with said power? Can social networks be turned into a genuine force for good, or do they form the ultimate menace?
It all feels, oddly enough, like Grant Morrison’s earlier comics, specifically The Invisibles (1994-2000) and the JLA World War III arc (1999-2000). “Feels” is the word here, since there’s no direct referencing here, just a similarity of tone and theme, if updated to fit the sensibilities of the early years of the 21st century’s second decade. In a scant 13 episodes CROWDS examines the value of superheroism and concludes that, yes, everyone can be a hero in their small way thanks to technology. No wonder the Gatchaman members spend far more time in civvies, and only manage to get to work as a costumed team near 11 episodes in. It’s like getting only 15 minutes’ worth of superhero action in a Justice League film. And know what? As bolstered with attractive character designs, genuinely good animation and a thumping dubstep-heavy soundtrack, CROWDS is so much better for it.
BATMAN INCORPORATED #13 (Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham et al, 2013)
Writing about single installments of any piece of serial entertainment is, more often than not, a pointless task. How can one even review something enmeshed within the context of a much bigger whole? Never mind Batman Inc. – not merely a 13 issue series (technically 21, since the series was rebooted following DC New 52 initiative), but the conclusion to Grant Morrison’s epic seven-year run on Batman (starting from 2006′s Batman #656), if not the Scottish scribe’s DC megastory kicked off back with JLA (1997). That’s sixteen years worth of comics, and Batman Inc. #13 is the capstone to all of that.
So what can one say about Batman Inc. #13? For one, it’s been interesting following the work of one Chris Burnham, whose Batman work (primarily with Morrison) saw him grow from mere disciple of twin detail-heavy comics art practitioners Geoff Darrow and Frank Quietly (who in turn are disciples of the one and only Jean Giraud/Moebius, marking further the late French god of all comics’s indelible mark on the form) to someone with a more individual voice. True, Burnham’s linework is not as elegant as Darrow’s, and he lacks Quitely’s mastery of body language, but his art has a slightly cartoonier edge, features lovingly dynamic crowd scenes (page 6 has an excellent triptych of action-heavy, superbly crowded vertical panels) and features a pleasingly less clean inkwork. As accompanied by Nathan Fairbarn’s subtle colour work, it makes for a book that looks like nothing out there – and not only among the samey dross choking DC and Marvel’s output. One can only hope Burnham and Fairbarn escape the Big Two for independent work, perhaps even with Morrison. Why not? The team seems to work.
As a closing, Batman Inc. #13 is a heavy, resigned piece. In contrast to the hopeful, celebratory tone of the conclusion to Morrison’s All Star Superman (2005-2008), this issue has Morrison giving up in the face of the inability to tell a story within DC Comics… sorry, DC Entertainment. Batman Inc. takes place across two versions of the DC Universe. Would that make any sense outside the context of superhero comics? Obviously not. No wonder that, in the end, Batman is seen exhausted in his not being allowed to kick the bucket, to bring fresh and exciting stories to light. Bruce Wayne is a man unable to grow up, trapped playing silly buggers with weirdos in a grotesque caricature of an American metropolis, forever.
Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.
WENU WENU (Omar Souleyman, 2013)
POP CULTURE DESTRUCTION followers should know this reviewer’s fondness for Omar Souleyman, once Syrian wedding singer and one of the few men cool enough to invite awe when rocking sunglasses at night. Souleyman now has a new album produced by no other than Kieran Hebden, aka electronic act Four Tet. Wenu Wenu is pure Souleyman, powerful vocals over synthesised Arabic beats and some of the best keyboard solos you’ll get to hear, ever. It’s pure energy and I love it. Give the title track a listen, in the least.