Sunday, August 30, 2015

Black Dog Down - August

Life is a rollercoaster. Unfortunately, it’s run by First Great Western so it’s not always as fast as other more traditional rollercoasters, but still manages to feature ups and downs, although not always in equal measure.

August could certainly be characterised that way. Very early in the month, for example, I experienced one of my worst days in a long while. One of those inexplicable cisis days where, for no specific reason you can fathom, you feel like biting down on a magnum. Not double choc or vanilla, but a .44 or .357, depending on your mood.

Horrendous. Luckily, gun laws in the UK rule that out as an option and ice cream is much easier to come by. So that formed one element of my – I won’t call it ‘remedy’, but – coping mechanism that day. Along with vino and a double bill of comfort movies.

These are a few of my favourite things, you see. (Julie Andrews can keep hers. Well, except the whiskers on kittens. I mean, who doesn’t love those, right? But I can tell you now, combining them with brown paper packages tied up with string is a recipe for disaster.) These pleasures are entirely fleeting, so how can they hope to have any impact when you’re struggling with life? Well, they’re a temporary fix for your brain chemistry, at worst a distraction, at best a stimulus. And you have to trust that the bad is going to be as temporary as the good.

You have to get yourself through to the next day when you might feel that bit better and maybe strong enough to take some more proactive measures.

Be Good To Yourself.

It’s stupidly simple. It has to be, because there are times when the heart and head have no energy or inclination for anything beyond that. Sometimes you’ll be so hollow that even your favourite things might not have the effect you’d hope, but you have to fill that hole - and fill the hours – with something.

Weather the storm. Things might not look any brighter in the morning. But on the other hand they might.

In my case, they did. And as with the inexplicable nadir, the following day’s positivity  was founded on nothing special. Spirits were not so high I could call it a zenith, but sometimes life is less rollercoaster and more meringue so you welcome softer peaks.

There was no storm damage to repair, so I could just get straight back to the daily battleplan versus the Black Dog. Applying all those little tactics that have proven reasonably effective so far through this year – e.g. maintaining the household environs. As stupid and obvious and simple as the short-term measures really, but depression makes slow learners of us all so it helps if the therapies aren’t too complicated.

Among the stupider, simplest ploys in this month’s arsenal I’ve found a daily dose of social media activity helpful. There’s distraction and diversion value, I suppose, but more than that there’s a sense of connection. Like any seasoned predator, the Black Dog knows to isolate its prey from the herd or flock. So where any depressive might easily disengage from real-world social activity, it’s easier to just dip in and out of conversations on all manner of topics online. It’s stuff that fires your interest and even fifteen minutes of pissing about can be the virtual equivalent of a fizzy energy drink.

One thing that’s been particularly good is just a daily post about film-related favourite things, under different categories. Borrowed the list of categories from a friend and it provides for a) five-minutes of fun over breakfast – there’s even fun to be had thinking about the non-favourites (those movies you hate, for example) b) discussion and debate with friends and c) in some cases some pointers towards movies I haven’t yet seen. Bonus.

NB: Use of social media should come with a warning, mind you, for those sensitive to difference of opinion. Maybe someone thinks your favourite movies are shit and rarely is anybody on the internet coy about expressing that. I’m sensitive about too many things myself, but not that. If you are, I recommend you think on this: favourites can’t be argued with. They’re your favourites. Someone feels differently? Great. That’s 1) guaranteed and 2) has zero actual impact on your enjoyment of whatever it happens to be.)

Me, I find diverse opinions variously interesting, entertaining, amusing even. One guy has a great talent for telling me I’m broken for some of my personal preferences in music, film, whatever and always makes me laugh. And laughter = medicine. So I’m very fond of the bastard.

Another part of the daily regimen – for two weeks out of this month anyway – was a creative writing exercise. Now, I’ve done a lot of such exercises, but they’re normally solo flights and this was shared between two friends. Which was great, as the morning scribbles would help warm up the old creative muscles for the day’s actual writing sessions (aka ‘work’), with the added benefit of exchange of ideas, critiques and the opportunity to learn from others’ approaches to the same exercise. It wasn’t hugely time-consuming and most days I found it a very welcome focus.

So this month, I suppose has been mostly about routines, spiced up with the occasional treat or day out – a cinema trip or two, a local beer festival, nothing massively special in the scheme of things, but enough to strike that essential balance between the routines and the breaking up of routines.

Individually they amount to fractions, but they add up to a whole that has amounted to some of my most significant improvement all year. It’s not dramatic, it’s only slow and steady. But it’s progress.
It’s been further assisted by two or three external serendipitous factors. Serendipitous implies they were happy accidents, of course, and that’s what they feel like, but I think they all arose out of social media contacts, probably as a result of my heightened activity on Facebook. Minor morale boosts, perhaps, but made greater boosts when I recognise that they’re born from my actions, from something I did.

Now all I have to do is take that life lesson and hammer it into my thick skull and I can hope to be that much stronger for the future. The future which, at this point, can be conveniently summed up with the title of a Counting Crows album.

August And Everything After.

Which happens to be another of my favourite things.

SAF 2015

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