Alright, as far as excuses for this first POP CULTURE DESTRUCTION for 2014 being late go this one’s pretty terrible, but it’s also kind of true. I jetted to London for a week, before getting jetted near immediately after that to Amsterdam. And the Schlock hivemind didn’t even seem to care! In fact the one call I got from my co-editors involved some admittedly urgent back-end related issue, which I have to say I did solve via judicious application of cashmoney. Anyway, if YOU have any complaints (especially concerning this overly long-winded intro acting as my personal blog of sorts) do use the comments below.
You might have heard how there’s a ROBOCOP remake just out. I’ve watched it, but will reserve judgement on it for the NEXT Pop Culture Destruction if for one statement – THIS is my kind of Robocop remake.
Sometimes, when a man likes a videogame very much he buys its companion artbook(s). Behold MONSTER HUNTER ILLUSTRATIONS 2, the second volume chock full of sketches and artwork from a game series I unexpectedly turned a fan of.
How about a film about the greatest science fiction film never made? Witness the trailer to the long-time-coming documentary on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s DUNE. The best bit, following all the Moebius artwork, is Jodorowsky’s cheerful admission of never actually reading the novel.
It sucks not to be in Japan in time check out this exhibition of LITTLE WITCH ACADEMIA keyframes.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD (dir. Alan Taylor, 2013)
In my IRON MAN 3 review I spoke of Marvel boiling down the making of films based on its various properties into a science. THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a further refinement of the formula – with cast, tone and look established all the comics peddler required was a script and a director just enough of a nobody (Alan Taylor, some GAME OF THRONES episodes) to bring it all together.
However, unlike the Man of Iron THOR lacks truly charismatic leads. The admittedly gorgeous (look at those abs – phwoar!) Chris Hemsworth has all the charm and acting chops of a side of beef, Natalie Portman is too busy reminiscing better days of critical acclaim and award nominations, and supposed lead villain Christopher Eccleston is clearly resigned to getting caked under inches of makeup in the name of appearing in flicks selling toys to boys. Only the supporting cast at least appears to be enjoying itself, making one want for a film where Sif and the Warriors Three (Jaimie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano) team up against Tom Hiddleston’s ever-smarming Loki. No Odin though – Anthony Hopkins can hardly muster the energy to mumble his lines, even if they are barely worthy of a HE-MAN episode.
The comparison to Saturday morning cartoons is more than apt, since the plot here involves “Dark Elves” wanting to destroy the universe through a SIGGRAPH fluid dynamics demo called “the Aether.” Too bad it’s mostly played out all too seriously with a blue/gray colour palette to match. I mean, THE DARK ELVES ARE PLANNING TO DESTROY THE UNIVERSE USING THE AETHER! Cue woosh-bang fights against some low-rent STAR WARS refugees, further nonsense involving an “Alignment” causing excuse to jump around a small selection of boring worlds (Glittering Metropolis World, Generic Fantasy World, Dismal Wasteland World, Urban Dystopia World*) and you have something that’ll just about entertain the younger members of your crew/clan. At least, in small mercies references to the wider “Marvel Cinematic Universe” are kept to a minimum with just a single line reminding us of THE AVENGERS** and a post-credits sequence pointing out how we are living in a world where a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY film is a thing that will exist. Did you know a person I vicariously know*** stars in it? GOD I love the future!
*aka London WHY AM I EXPLAINING MY OWN JOKE
** STILL TOO MUCH OF A REMINDER IF YOU ASK ME
*** Marama Corlett (of that Sinbad show you might have watched), who our own Teodor knows!
SHERLOCK (season 3, 2014)
I’ll admit it – I was more than a little excited on first hearing Smaug was to star alongside Bilbo Baggins in a new adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. After all there’s nothing like a gigantic fire breathing dragon to truly revitalise the grand Victorian detective. However actually viewing the damn thing reveals that while The Hobbit shows up (if donning what’s possibly the saddest moustache in the history of facial furniture), replacing the dragon is actually that future space guy from STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS. Disappointing! Then it all clicked – this is just the much awaited third season of the handsome BBC take on Sherlock with the novel format, demanding bunch of years between seasons because each actually consists of three movie-length episodes!
Anyway, BBC Sherlock, starring Martin Freeman and that guy with the face (Benedict Cumberbatch). This season comes a couple of years after the second, which concluded with Sherlock apparently offing himself by jumping off a building. It’d come to no spoiler to learn that wasn’t exactly the case, and the first episode is dedicated entirely to (not) telling what exactly happened. It’s kind of clever, actually. Sherlock has a cult following (and in the show!), and its members was busy trying to work the events following the showdown with Moriarty But first, jokes! Did you notice Watson’s funny sadness moustache? Because it’s sure funny! A-ha-ha! Moustache! Will he shave it off?
Yes, he does.
The second episode drops any pretence of mystery and turns the show into a soap opera about Watson’s marriage to his long suffering ladyfriend, Mary. Sherlock is best man despite his being a sociopathic meat robot, since he’s apparently Watson’s super best friend, as both characters repeatedly tell us. They’re best friends! Buddies! Never mind the show has been going on for too little – with too long of gaps – to actually build the two characters’ relationship beyond their just about tolerating each other. Some murders also go on, but that subplot is so vague and confusing it just takes up screentime. Minutes (that feel like hours) that should have been better used to, I don’t know, reminding us how much of super special best friends Watson and Sherlock are. Because that’s what they are. Really.
As for the concluding third episode? Here the show drops the detective genre in favour of full on superspy nonsense. Now the smarter assed of you might point out Conan Doyle’s original stories also verged towards spy fiction, but in any case this is not a complaint – superspy nonsense is only one of my favourite things in the world, and this is exactly what I wanted from that boring, stupid AGENTS OF SHIELD show. Just about every character here is a superperson! Sherlock and his brother Mycroft are, of course, geniuses par excellence, but Watson is a man-breaking badass and his wife is nothing less than a genuine superspy. Hell, even the vagrant Sherlock randomly picks from a squat is also some kind of idiot savant while 221B Baker Street’s landlady used to be something of a criminal mastermind back in the day. Fantastic, I’m sure you agree. This lot squares off against what amounts to a Bond villain (Charles Augustus Magnussen, “the Napoleon of blackmail”) complete with weird gimmicks, the ending features confrontation in the villain’s HQ (with a misdirection-based twist!) and it’s all just wonderful. If the fourth season retains this mix of stupidity and genius – no needless fanservice or melodramatic garbage, please – then I just can’t wait.
THE WHITECHAPEL DEMON (Josh Reynolds, 2013)
It’s no revelation that detective fiction and the supernatural tend to go pretty well together, much like the combination of strawberries and balsamic vinegar. Think John Constantine, Harry Dresden, Felix Castor or even Hellboy. Now there’s another name to the list – Charles St. Cyprian. However, while those aforementioned characters operate within the latter years of the 20th century, St. Cyprian’s stories take place at a far earlier date, specifically the roaring 20’s. A lover of hand rolled cigarettes and fine tailoring, St. Cyprian is a WW1 veteran and holder of the Royal Occultist title, meaning he’s the one the British government calls when the supernatural shit hits the occult fan. Joining him is Ebe Gallowglass, feisty (and vaguely exotic, what with her being part-Egyptian) female assistant with a penchant for violence. So far, so fairly familiar, even if Reynolds puts the post-pre-war London setting to good use to brew up a city rife with secret societies, strangely gifted individuals and dark, ancient mysteries. You know, the kind people really should stop being inquisitive about…
This first novel’s title suggests at least part of the story’s content – yes a certain Ripper closely associated with a certain neighbourhood might be heavily involved (if not in the way one might initially expect) – but Reynolds’ writing moves the plot at a fairly brisk pace, with just enough of exposition and scene building to sate at least part of the reader’s curiosity while keeping them on their toes. Meanwhile the protagonists remain ever likable, even their relationship is set at a familiar odd couple register – the world weary St. Cyprian is something of an open book despite his history and choice of career, while the livelier Gallowglass is more of an enigma, and the two pair offset each other rather nicely. Either way, it goes on for exactly long enough (it’s a rare gift, knowing how and when to put a story to a close), and now that I’m done with it a sequel wouldn’t go too amiss. As far as genre recommendations go, that scores pretty damn high in my book.
METAL GEAR RISING: REVENGEANCE (Platinum Studios, 2013).
Revengeance. Go on, say it out loud. RE-VEN-GEA-NCE. It’s videogames in a clunky portmanteau, one speaking of robot ninjas slicing cyborg foes while hopping all over a world turned urban hellscape. Yes, REVENGEANCE ultimately is an update of the ninja-themed titles such as STRIDER, SHINOBI, or NINJA WARRIORS AGAIN* of yore, only it’s blessed with broad strokes of genius courtesy of the action gaming geniuses at Platinum Studios, they of GODHAND and BAYONETTA. As benefits a Platinum game, REVENGEANCE features crunchy, satisfying combat complete with extremely clever mechanics, which we’ll touch upon in a bit. First I want to tackle the METAL GEAR part of the title, which denotes that this game still makes part of Hideo Kojima’s ludicrous war-themed soap opera. Sure, the setting might be post-MGS4 gonzo cyberpunk and the stealth mostly out, but protagonist Raiden remains the tortured ex-child soldier turned cyborg seen first met in MGS2, and as benefits a METAL GEAR title he squares off against powerful adversaries – in this case a quartet of superpowered cyborgs dubbed The Four Winds of Destruction – and uses a radio built right in his ear to have little chats with his allies. Saving still involves vaguely flirtatious conversations with a pretty lady, the plot drops references to realpolitik (such as the Liberian civil war, September 11th and Iraqi WMDs) with utterly confident aplomb, and the only voice of cool, reasoned sanity is a robot dog called Blade Wolf. Trust me, that last bit makes sense. Blade Wolf is the best. Actually, all you need to know about REVENGEANCE’s take on storytelling can be seen in this here cutscene.
Amusing on MULTIPLE levels!
Anyway, back to the aforementioned “extremely clever mechanics.” The first is the parry system. Unlike most games of its type REVENGEANCE lacks dedicated block or dodge buttons. Instead one has to parry, which is done by pressing the medium attack button together with the direction of the enemy attack one wants to avoid. Time it right, and the attack bounces off Raiden’s sword. Time it really right, and Raiden performs a counter powerful enough to leave most enemies open to a powerful finishing move. As a result the game is constantly aggressive, the player encouraged to push further and further, with the only breaks coming from offing enemies via “Zandantsu.” What’s that? A squeeze of left trigger slows time down to a crawl, allowing the careful aiming of sword strikes in any direction. Line the strike with an enemy’s weak spot (shown as a glowing square) and you insta-kill the guy. A second button press, and Raiden rips the enemy’s spine right off before crushing it in his fist, an action that fully replenishes his health. You’ll do this many times. It will never not be satisfying.
Oh, a note on the PC version, which is the one I got around to playing. It’s a serviceable enough port – meaning it is somewhat better than Japanese console-derived contemporaries such as DARK SOULS or DEADLY PREMONITIONS, but is still not too well optimised and sees one crippling bug during the final boss battle. It also gets a couple of bits of additional content thrown in, including extra missions starring swaggering Brazilian samurai Jetstream Sam and Blade Wolf, that bladiest of the wolves and the wolfiest of the blades. Both are quite alright! Anyway, play REVENGEANCE. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll pump your fist in the air once the final boss is defeated. Then you’ll do it all over again on a harder difficulty level, because it’s that fun. Anyway, get into it.
*I swear this is a game that exists, and is rather awesome
I’ve been reading TERRA FORMARS (by Yo Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana), an ugly, stupid manga that’s basically about dudes with animal-themed superpowers getting into violent fights with racist caricatures that are supposedly evolved from cockroaches (seriously, look at this shit) on the planet Mars. It goes on exactly in the way you imagine it does, and is very much Power Rangers for an audience that thinks violence and needless character deaths make “mature” storytelling, kind of like THE GUYVER from way back in the day or GANTZ from more recent years.
However what it really brings to mind is ATTACK ON TITAN (Hajime Isayama), the manga turned inexplicably massive transmedia phenomenon (comics, books, games, films) that’s mainly about angsty teenagers fighting to protect the last remnants of the human race against near-indestructible man-eating giants. Both TITAN and TERRA FORMARS follows a simple narrative pattern – protagonists meet an enemy, enemy is incredibly strong, enemy annihilates all but a couple of survivors, survivors manage to get a stronger set of allies, protagonists meet an EVEN STRONGER enemy. Rinse, repeat. Enemies in both cases are unfeeling forces of monstrous natures, protagonists stand stoic in the face of all the violence their war brings about. Why are they fighting anyway? Mars is something of a shithole (if one populated by a race with possibilities of cultural evolution), while the last surviving human stronghold in TITAN appears to be little more than a joyless European-style city. Populated as it is by corrupt politicians and an ineffectual populous, its atmosphere feels doomed enough to make one resign to outright nihilism.
Another manga dealing with the same trope of survival against monstrous odds – only one I actually like and thus deserves a mention – is KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA* (Tsutomu Nihei), which is very much TITAN only science fiction. Set on a thousand-year old colony starship, it stars a troop of robot-piloting teenagers serving as protection against the “Gauna”, cosmic horrors that destroyed the world many centuries prior. But why is it any good? In part it’s the artwork, since Tsutomu Nihei draws the hell out of it, with stylish and atmospheric pages far superior to FORMARS’ shonen blockiness or the sketchy crudity of TITANS (even if that same crude sketchiness lends the Titans a genuine creepiness). There’s also has a sense of place – Nihei allows the story to breath, breaking the siege with scenes exploring life aboard the titular Sidonia. In a tone best described as light we see characters live, love and play, not just grimly stomp from one battle to the next. And that makes all the difference. The Sidonia is shown to be beautiful and precious, and worth protecting against the horrors lurking in space. The giant robot battles are just a cursory bonus.
*no relation to the Muse song of the near-identical name
RAVE TAPES (Mogwai, 2014)
It feels strange (if not outright entitled) to complain how a band’s latest release comfortably manages to reach the levels of the earlier components of its discography, yet that’s the description fitting this first Mogwai studio album since the brilliantly titled HARDCORE WILL NEVER DIE BUT YOU WILL (2011), not counting the brilliant soundtrack to last year’s LES REVENANTS. But, in short, RAVE TAPES qualifies as more than listenable and is replete with all one expects from a Mogwai album – the sonic scope is suitably vast, the mood remains, well, moody, there’s distorted guitars, melodic chords and scuzzy analogue synths.
If one is feeling particularly harsh they can say it’s just another Mogwai album, and they’d be entirely right. Why bother loading RAVE TAPES in your choice of audio device if MR. BEAST (2006) or HAPPY SONGS FOR HAPPY PEOPLE (2003) (or, hell, YOUNG TEAM (1997)) are already there? Of course, there’s standout tracks – the opening “I Heard About You Last Night” explores at least part of the darkness heard in the LES REVENANTS soundtrack, and the retro synths in “Remurdered” are effective just enough to excite one over Mogwai all over again. But then there’s “Replenish”, which near ruins a moody slice of electronica with a near-badly mixed spoken word sample lifted off a 1981 broadcast by evangelist Michael Mills on the satanic messages supposedly hidden in “Stairway to Heaven.”
At least the conclusion is strong, thanks to the synthesised vocals and quiet buildup of “No Medicine for Regret” and “The Lord is Out of Control” – even if, ultimately, there is no one track that reaches the heights of , say, “Mogwai Fear Satan” or “Glasgow Megasnake”.
Still, RAVE TAPES is a good enough release coming from Mogwai. But is it truly great? At least there’s worse ways post-rock greats can age, right?