Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Four Fox Sake

Rarely when reviews lead you to expect a film to be poor does a movie fall so far short of its promise. Promise very little and you ought to be safe from disappointing anyone.

Still, when your film is the Fantastic Four you have on your hands a property with all the potential of the Avengers with the added advantage that there are only four superheroes with a dysfunctional family dynamic, granting you greater opportunity for focus, little need to spread some of your characters a bit thin. What’s more, they all share the same origin story so you can cut all that malarkey right down and get to the actual story nice and quick. Right?


Oh so wrong.

 Before this review is over, I will make a promise of my own though. I promise to try to find four things about this movie that are fantastic. I will do my best. I’ll also extend some charity to the director, Josh Trank, who was apparently as unhappy with the film as its audiences. Fox interfered with his vision, so I hear, and it’s not the movie he wanted to make. On the other hand, it’s extremely difficult to divine anything like a decent F4 movie salvageable from the mess that made it t the cinema screens.

Out of interest, last night I watched the 2005 FantasticFour film for some sort of comparison. And I can only deduce that Fox (and/or Trank) decided that the best way to go with a reboot was to remove everything that was good about that previous version while really going to town on compounding and exacerbating its mistakes.

The 2005 film goes something like this: 12-15 minutes to the instigating incident that gives the Four their powers; roughly 20-30 minutes of them coming to terms with those powers and garnering some (largely unwanted) celebrity as a superhero team while Victor Von Doom gradually becomes Doctor Doom, albeit in no great rush to conceal Julian McMahon’s bland acting behind the famous Doom mask. Then we’re into montage territory as Reed Richards endeavours to reverse the infusion of superpowers, while Doom plots their destruction. Followed by a too-short 30 minutes of the Four confronting Doom in the climactic battle.

It’s all a bit simple, lacks in the plot development department. But it carries itself along at a brisk pace, it’s fun, bright, colourful, peppered with witty dialogue and charismatic performances from the leads. Some great exchanges, including but not limited to the rivalry between Ben Grimm and the Torch. Four things that are a bit crap about it: Julian McMahon’s lacklustre Doom, not much of a plot after the origin tale, some of the fx look a bit dated, the Thing is wrong – too small. But Chiklis fought to play the Thing in a big suit and the trade-off instead of a CGI Thing is that we get a great actor-driven performance. Plenty of gravelly wit and pathos, we get to meet the Thing as the character he is in the comics.

Now wind the clock on ten years and the 2015 version is described by its cast members as ‘more realistic’. Not sure where they got that idea, but maybe they saw some director’s cut that didn’t make it to release.

It does have the pace of a documentary, I suppose, with none of the substance. 50 minutes into this 100 minute feature – yes, that’s halfway – we get to the instigating incident that grants the Four their powers. Followed by 30 minutes of them coming to terms with those powers and being tested and employed by the military. That leaves about 15 minutes minutes for the discovery of a transformed Victor Von Doom who’s been lost and forgotten about for half an hour, rescued only to return to his other-dimensional dump and trigger the destruction of the world through a portal, but luckily he’s stopped as the Four unite in a hasty finisher. Round off with a 5 minute coda that’s the LAMEST scene I’ve ever seen in a film not written by a single monkey on a finite number of typewriters. 

Now, as audiences we have probably seen a few too many superhero origin stories. The most recent I’d watched before this came in Marvel’s Ant-Man and that went on a bit too long, but at least it led into a movie that had half a plot and – more crucially – was huge amounts of FUN.

What Fox does with the Fantastic Four is filter out every last drop of fun, presumably out of some misguided belief that if you make a superhero movie darker you make it ‘more realistic’. Take note, all you sage studio execs: not automatically the case. What it achieves here is to leech out all the colour, brightness, wit, charm et cetera and renders the movie miserable and dreary. It’s a drag.

It’s by no means helped by the cast who haven’t a grain of charisma between them. They’re all po-faced, sullen teens with no witty exchanges.

The Thing looks pretty good – not fantastic, sorry, but I guess that can be one of those four good things I can say about this movie – but what we get for the bigger budget fx is a pile of rocks with arms and legs and utterly devoid of character. He’s not Grimm, he’s glum, lumbers about bemoaning his lot. He’s like Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch, but with all the personality removed.

It’s a little unfair to single him out, because the dullness extends to the other three. The Torch has no ready repertoire of wisecracks and every time he flames on he can fry the chips on his shoulder. Invisible Girl hass an attempt at intense but just looks stiff and displays more personality when she can’t be seen. Reed Richards seems more like one of the Goonies than a scientific genius. And again he’s clearly had his personality surgically removed.

Doom, for as much as he’s in it, amounts to a surly brat, who looks a bit too old for bratdom, but whatever. As stated, he’s not even present for half the movie and I’m not too sure whether he finally has a go at destroying the Earth because he’d been left for dead or just because he was pissed off with the world beforehand. Hard to say. Hard to care.

There’s a huge villain-shaped hole in this movie and the battle in another dimension – which, admittedly, is something you might expect to see in a Fantastic Four comicbook tale, so I’ll cite that as number two of the ‘fantastic’ things. It’s not – fantastic, I mean – it’s just okay and the other-dimensional world occasionally looks like a cheap Star Trek set, but cut me some slack, I am doing my best here. As well as having no villain worth mentioning, it has no plot beyond an origin story that starts all the way back when our heroes are kids - hey, why stop there, next superhero movie I see I want to open with them in the womb, decades before they fall into a vat of radioactive spiders or whatever.

And then there’s that denouement where, I kid you not, our heroes stand around discussing how now that they’re a team they really need a name and Ben Grimm just happens to remark that they’ve come a long way from their childhood days in Reed Richards’ garage and that it’s fantastic... Giving Reed the inspiration he needs to come up with a name for their unmerry band.

It really is *that* LAME. No, it’s LAMER than that. I cannot do the scene’s utter LAMENESS justice in writing.

I have failed. And I still need to come up with two other things that are ‘fantastic’ about this movie. Er. The music. I can’t actually remember it much, but I’m sure it could easily have been all right. And, um, the actor who plays Baxter, the benevolent foster-father of Sue Storm and Johnny Storm, gives a creditably paternal performance. Although since his role is mainly to chastise and sagely caution his team, he adds to the general atmosphere of misery and woe that pervades what was, in its earliest incarnation, a vibrant and colourful comicbook world.

So, in summary, not as good as the average but mostly entertaining previous version (and its sequel Rise Of The Silver Surfer). Barely one star out of ten, if you’d prefer a rating, while the 2005 one would probably get 6 from me.

What really disappoints is that this adds up to a wasted opportunity. For Trank, for the audience, for everybody. Even Fox. I  mean, I understand that studios have to keep making these movies every now and then in order to retain the rights to the properties. But if you’re going to spend a hundred million or more on such a stinker, why wouldn’t you rather save your money and allow the rights to revert to Marvel. Or, and here’s a thought, sell the rights back to Marvel. Marvel/Disney have money coming out of their Mickey Mouse ears, they could afford it, you get some cash and they get to make something at the very least half-decent out of what really ought to be on a par with the Avengers.

Instead of making something that probably kills off any prospect of a good Fantastic Four movie for the next ten years.

Not fantastic, Mr Fox. Not fantastic at all.

SAF 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015

Black Dog Down - July

Little things please little minds.

Not that my mind is especially little, but it does tend to get quite crowded so that’s suggestive of some pretty cramped headspace. Or maybe there’s ample space but there’s too many foreign thoughts coming over here, taking up too much room and living off the system.

Whatever the case, some days it’s like a cover of a favourite book of mine by Harry Harrison, which depicts loads of weird characters crammed into a sardine can as the title above proclaims, Make Room! Make Room!

Emotionally, this month has been as changeable as July weather. And this time of year the ice gets pretty thin as I skate around my various projects, plans and daily routine. As with previous months, I’ve had to take some care to identify what is depression and what is merely the downward mood shift brought on by the pressure of all those foreign thoughts.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of experience in identifying the Black Dog, but even now there are times when external sources trespass and blur the tracks. And inevitably there are occasions when a single upsetting news story can fuel the depression. You can’t prevent the thoughts from entering, but perhaps I should wear a sign on my forehead: DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL.

For me, this month was all about a new chapter in life. A solo spin-off, as I described it. In those terms, I wouldn’t call it a resounding success, but like a lot of pilot episodes it has the makings of something promising, just needs more work and maybe even a whole season before it properly finds its feet.

In terms of my writing, it’s been more a case of working towards things than working on anything specifically. The first half of the month was nevertheless very busy – with various admin and practicalities to attend to (changes of domestic status translates into a surprising amount of paperwork and so on). Busy-ness is definitely a decent defence against the Black Dog, but you have to be wary of the quiet spells between. Because busy-ness can also be a lot like pretending nothing’s amiss.

Quite often, a successful, productive and creative morning would be followed by a mini meltdown at home. And there was the one evening I was out to celebrate my sister’s birthday, having a grand time, loads of laughs and then – whoosh, out of nowhere, breaking down in tears and seriously diluting my pint. Luckily, friends and family don’t judge nearly as much as I do myself. Phew.

I think in the first week of separation, I’d sort of convinced myself my wife was only ‘away for a bit’ and might be back at the weekend. Amid my efforts to notify the local council and others of my change of circumstances, I forgot to properly notify myself. That old river, denial, she keeps rolling on.

Anyway, that was a bit of a turning point, because with my own birthday impending I awarded myself a break. Still juggling one or two creative endeavours along the way, but nowhere near as busy. A lovely micro-holiday away, change of scenery in the company of a very dear friend. World of good.

Sharp-eyed followers of my serialised short fiction blog will have noticed an interrupted schedule – my disciplined one-episode-a-week approach has faltered, but we’re still in the game and normal service will be resumed. Some days it’s just been beyond me to write even a paltry 500 words, other days it’s been well within my capabilities but it’s been more important just to switch off and do something more practical instead.

One facet of solo life that strikes immediately is a sudden lengthening of the days that has nothing to do with the summer. There’s way more time to fill. Unfortunately, that came accompanied with a loss of interest in all manner of entertainments – films, music, TV, video games, reading – a lot of my usual comforts lost appeal for a while. I’ve trained myself out of that particular slump, thankfully, sometimes forcing myself to watch a movie, for example, even a rubbish one. Because there’s some therapeutic value, I guess, in generating negative thoughts about something other than yourself.

Well, I’m no psychologist, so can’t guess how that works, but it helped. And I’m rediscovering my enthusiasm for all those things I previously enjoyed without any effort. I have some fun rewatches and marathons planned.

And all of that will have the added benefit of helping me to cut down on my news intake.

Quite apart from the direct and personal stuff that affects me, I’m aware of the degree of damage that can be done just by keeping up to date with national and global events.
Interestingly, a Facebook friend of mine only recently professed to a measure of guilt he felt at isolating himself from the daily diet of news stories to which most of us subject ourselves. No man is an island, after all, and we all like to feel a sense of connection to the world around us.

All too easy to identify with his situation. I have to allow myself periods of news deprivation. Self-protection can feel selfish and, yes, you may experience some guilt as a side-effect. But in a world where not a day goes by without someone preying on something or someone – be it beautiful wildlife, the environment, the poor  and socially disadvantaged, racial and ethnic groups, the list goes on – it’s tough to endure that constant assault on your compassion.

Care too much and exposing yourself to that becomes a slow kind of self-harm. You can’t stop caring like you can stop smoking, and if you feel a need to retreat into your shell and enter a sort of waking hibernation, safe from the harsh cold of current affairs, then give yourself that. And ignore any guilt that might come pawing at the door. It’s likely to be a friend of the Black Dog.

Meanwhile, as I said at the outset, little things please little minds.

Today, for example, I’m feeling reasonably upbeat. The aftereffects of a good night out at the weekly pub quiz, topped off by a tidy little jackpot win. Money can’t buy you happiness, but a modest windfall like that can at least ease a bit of financial anxiety. And in any case a win feels good.

I’ve learned the value of celebrating the small triumphs, the little victories. So while the effects of external negatives can be disproportionate, I can also make more of external positives. The trick, I suppose, is learning not to depend on them – because, let’s face it, they don’t always crop up as often as the negatives – but there’s something to be said for milking them for all their worth.

When I give my cats kitty treats they scoff them like little furry vacuum cleaners, bless. When I give myself treats or life happens to throw one my way, I owe it to myself to savour them a bit.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned repeatedly. Because although my mind is probably not in fact little, it has a tendency to misplace important things like that. So it’s a lesson I need to hold onto as we head on into August.

No matter how much progress you feel you’re making or perhaps feel you’re not making, there’s one thing that’s always worth bearing in mind.

Every day is training day.

SAF 2015

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Black Dog Down - June

So, the other weekend I was at a friend’s wedding reception and an alert came through to my phone: Facebook letting me know that said friend had got married. Social media, on the ball. Important not to let these little details slip you by when you’re attending a real world social occasion.

Turns out no similar notifications are sent out on your newsfeed when you change your Facebook status from married to single. Well good, that’s a downgrade and nobody wants to advertise that.

Still, it’s a fact and unless you’re a bible-thumping creationist from the Deep South or an Islamic fundamentalist heavenbent on world (and your own) destruction, facts are by and large inescapable. So yes, now I’m young, free and single. Or, as my sister put it, two out of three isn’t bad.

Updating (or downgrading) your Facebook status is not the primary concern in the midst of a painful decoupling, but I went ahead and attended to that minor spot of book-keeping on the Friday afternoon that my wife left because frankly I was in denial, half-convinced that she was only setting off on a weekend trip and I was crying for no good reason since she’d be back Monday.

Essentially, I had to acknowledge what had happened. And in fact my tears were not for no good reason. They were built on very solid foundations. Unlike those only the day before, when I was walking home from a pleasant morning’s writing session in the local cafe and started crying my eyes out on a public thoroughfare.

Now, I knew that tomorrow was impending (it usually is) and that my wife would be departing (I’d known that for a month or more), but I couldn’t swear to it that had anything to do with that sudden tearful spell. It sort of crept in and pounced and it was a whole sorry mess of feelings, specific source indetertiminate.

What that Thursday-Friday contrast hammered home to me was that stark and horrible contrast between depression and things that are upsetting. Some don’t grasp that distinction. Once upon a while ago, both my parents would ask what the hell I had to be depressed about. Simple answer: nothing and everything. There was nothing they perceived as wrong with me or my life (other than they really felt I ought to give up this writing pipedream and get a proper job) and, incidentally, there were a lot of people worse off in Africa. (Paraphrasing there, but you get the gist.) While if they’d been the viewpoint character in this story they would have seen that I had everything to be depressed about. Everything, including all those worse-off people in Africa.

The truth is I could win the lottery this week, net my life-long dream and land a massive publishing contract, get rogered senseless by the hottest woman on the planet and still be depressed. Whatever Maria might tell you in song, thinking of a few of your favourite things doesn’t always set the world right. She’s kidding herself if she thinks a few warm woollen kittens can fend off the Black Dog.

Obviously the question at the centre of this year-long blogathon is, what can? Equally as obviously, I haven’t answered that yet. Give me time, ha.

Well, the discipline and the environmental improvements are helping to a degree. Having a good domestic clear out has been a healthy step and will likely continue. This does not include turfing out your partner, I should add. It wasn’t like that.

While I can very easily identify the difference between depression and common or garden sadness – they’re like chalk and cheese where even the simple cheese is way more preferable, even to the most dairy intolerant of us – I can’t recommend adding to your life’s upsets. That’s like building a house out of tyres when your rubbery foundations are on fire. No, ideally you want to be focused on adding to the good things in your life, even if it’s just a minor inexpensive treat each day.


But there’s a strange relief in grief from external sources. What you’re experiencing, after all, is a healthy emotional response to stuff that’s expected to make you feel like shit. Stuff that comes at you from without rather than within. So I guess what I’m saying is don’t go looking for bad, hell no, but if it comes your way then there’s something to be said for recognising it.

MyJune then has involved a pressing need to handle reality. A bullet headed my way at the end of the month and no way of dodging it. It involved a great many practical concerns – of which the Facebook update was the least, I should probably add. Separation brings with it more financial considerations than I’d properly appreciated.

Truth to tell, I’ve not earned any sort of living off my profession since I wrote my last Merlin novelisation (and holy crud, that’s depressing – by which I mean it’s a clearly identifiable external root cause of deep dissatisfaction, disappointment etc, possibly contributing to and reinforcing my depression, but not actual depression in and of itself). So even setting the emotional side aside, I’ve found myself having to devote inordinate amounts of June to form-filling, benefits applications, banking arrangements, new tenancy agreements, switching water rates to my name only, desperately trying to rethink my business approach to somehow make more income out of this writing lark etc etc etc. (Etc.) I can’t tell a lie, it was all hugely daunting and wearing, but it was diverting. Not like watching a bad movie, but definitely a pain-in-the-ass distraction from both the impending separation and the depression. Nothing like a headache to relieve the heartache, eh?

Of course, the downside to that distraction was that ultimately it’s a return to life on benefits and that feels too much like a return to one of the times in my life when the Black Dog was at its blackest. Every silver lining has a cloud.

Still, as I write this I’m acknowledging that while June represents an ending I owe myself my absolute best efforts to view the 1st of July as a beginning. Ultimately, that’s what this separation was about – my wife and myself seeking different things in life that take us in different directions.

And of all June’s hard practicalities, that task of coming up with ideas to further  my writing career and so on has had a positive, re-energising effect. Not to any miraculous degree, but in small, subtle ways that I hope will turn out to be the stem cells of this grand new rebirth. Okay, that’s possibly overstating it a bit, but we’ll see. At the end of the day, I’ve armed myself with plans and a number of things to look forward to...

So, here’s looking you in the eye, July. Episode One of a new solo spin-off series. And my wife has her own new series too. Good luck to you, Mrs!

SAF 2015

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Black Dog Down - May

Previously on Black Dog Down...

“A month of R&R. Surely even I can’t fail at that.

Thought I’d open with that quote as I was fairly sure at the time I wrote it that, yes, even I could fail at a month of R&R. And I did, to some extent.

You see, the truth is, well, I did some work. I wish I could claim I didn’t mean to and it just happened, but I would be deceiving myself. Which isn’t difficult after years of practice pretending to friends and family and casual acquaintances alike that you’re okay or doing fine. But I can’t make a convincing case here.

By the start of May I was still behind schedule on applying the make-up and cosmetic surgery to the latest book in my Evil UnLtd series. And with it being a sci-fi comedy I was keen to see it released in time for Towel Day (25th May). Not imperative – I mean, the world wouldn’t have imploded or been consumed by a mutant star goat if I didn’t make it. But – but I kind of knew the Black Dog would chew away at me if I let that goal pass me by.

So it became a matter of balancing the need for R&R with the – let’s not say need, but – preference for realising this one small-scale ambition. And actually I’m glad to say I managed to achieve that. Most days this month involved a decent quantity of rest and recreation – catching up on some good TV, a trip or two to the cinema, liberal dashes of video gaming, fun day out at a local beer festival (yesterday), availing myself of a few new purchases, treats edible or otherwise –  all interspersed with rationed spells of productivity. Not to mention a healthy portion of that productivity qualified as bona fide creativity, aka fun, aka didn’t feel like work at all.

So. Score one for the good guys. Take that, Black Dog. I’ll soon have that bastard performing tricks for me on Britain’s Got Talent.

Well, okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Before we hang out the bunting and start tossing confetti and fireworks all over the place, it’s important to acknowledge that there have been setbacks.

Folks in the UK will recall that we had a General Election here at the beginning of May. It’s all done now, albeit the dust will continue to settle over the course of the next five years.

Now there’s nothing quite like news and politics and global events to depress the shit out of you. So much so, it’s a wonder that constipation is still so common in the modern world. Such worries are like foxes constantly getting in amongst my personal chickens. These are realities that I’m sometimes ashamed to say I have to isolate myself from, retreating into my shell to protect myself. But if I find it a challenge to refrain from work for a month, I find it impossible to not care.

Care often translates into anger and, yes, further depression. There’s a sense of futility too, when you realise how little difference you can make. Obviously, you know you can’t carry that on your shoulders, but that doesn’t prevent it from weighing you down on (too many) occasions.

Anger can be useful. Indeed, prior to the election, it energised me to quite a degree and some stories in the press continue to do so. But at the same time I am conscious of a level of deflation in the wake of the result. Without getting into the political debate, it was an outcome I believe will have disastrous consequences for many of the poor and disadvantaged in this country. Note: not me. People who are far far worse off than me.
Anyway, it affected me and before we get to the longer term damage to society etc, it had an immediate impact on my battle versus depression. Not as major an impact as the word count afforded it here will lead you to believe, but significant, I’d say, and worth taking the time to reflect on and consider how I can better manage my reactions to such things in the future.

(Ultimately, it’s another reason why we need to be more conscious of mental health issues, because while some of us retain some element of control over our own environs, wider society will inevitably have its effects and those are something that, beyond the power of the vote, most of us can do approximately sod all about.)

Speaking of the future, it was nearer to the end of the month that news struck closer to home. News of an impending change of personal circumstances that, although it hasn’t happened yet, is having its impact. The kind of impact that ought to seriously trouble my pet dinosaurs if I had any. Yes, there’s a personal asteroid headed my way and there’s not a Bruce Willis or a Ben Affleck with a space shuttle in sight to divert it off course.

Don’t worry, it’s nothing life-threatening. But it is mental-health threatening.

My preparatory coping strategy in response to this is to try to focus on the practicalities. Finances and the like. At some point there will be emotional fallout to deal with but for the time being I am maintaining a (slightly wobbly, I’ll admit) equilibrium.

So we approach June knowing there are clouds on the horizon and with a high probability that the Black Dog will be pawing at the door.

But I think the (mostly) time off in May has helped me. It’s less a matter of armouring myself, more a case of affording me a little clear headspace, freeing up a bit of room in there to (we hope) deal with things better. We’ll see, time will tell and all that, as usual.
Since May turned out to be a mix of work and recreation, I’ve promised myself an extension of that ‘holiday’, with at least the first week dedicated to more of the same.

Actually, more time off and (aside from some ongoing short story writings, which are just another form of gaming in a way) less work.

And around midway through I’ve plans to start work on a new project which, in theory, should provide some creative excitement and enthusiasm. To say nothing of an added diversion from real life.

And I don’t know that it’s entirely healthy to say this, but diversions from real life are always welcome.

SAF 2015